Another infectious disease stalking the earth

Chinese officials have warned that the coronavirus has already started to mutate, making the disease ubiquitous and possibly more lethal. With nearly 2,000 infected and 56 already dead in China, the country of origin of the disease, the virus has travelled to United States, Hong Kong, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, Macau, Japan, and the Philippines. The United Kingdom has received 14 cases, enough to spark alarm, if not an outright emergency. Asia, nonetheless, remains the most vulnerable continent. Precautionary measures are, so far, limited to quarantining travellers suspected of having fever or respiratory illness, after screening them at airports.

Although the symptom of ordinary flu and coronavirus are identical, they are different genetically and in impact. Most of the signs match with that of “classical viral pneumonia,” said Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious disease and global health at the Centre of Tropical Medicine and Global Health at the University of Oxford. Until there is a cure for the disease, through an antiviral invention, the health service providers would have to rely on the supportive mechanism—protecting lungs and other organs till the time patients start recovering.

Researchers in China and the US have started applying their minds to the development of the vaccine. But time shall be the barrier between finding a successful treatment and keeping people from not succumbing to coronavirus. It may typically take a year before any vaccine hit the pharmacies and drug stores—until then people shall have to adhere to precautionary measures, rather more strictly. Maria Van Kerkhove, acting head of emerging infectious disease at the World Health Organization, said, since coronavirus typically causes respiratory symptoms, the frontline safety measures may include: keeping hands clean by washing them with soap and water, maintaining distance with people who are sick, keeping a sneezing nose covered with a tissue or flexed elbow, and avoiding unnecessary contact with live animals.

Unlike any other flu whose virus incubates rapidly, the one causing coronavirus takes longer to symptomize. It may take six or 10 days before any sign may appear. And because of the missing “immunity” the human body often fails to identify the sneaking enemy that comes from a large group of viruses, infecting mostly bats, pigs, and small mammals. In rare cases, what scientists at the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention called “zoonotic” the virus is transmitted from animals to humans.

Many attempts have been made to improve the response and sustainability of the environment against the outbreak of infectious diseases and epidemics. The health experts went so far as to establish a global governance framework, financed mechanisms and created legal instruments to support the global community. The ensuing preparedness, translated into hygiene, water purification, vaccines, and antimicrobials proved insufficient as new threats such as Ebola, SARS, hantavirus, HIV and novel strains of influenza, kept raring. Not that the old foes, cholera and yellow fever had gone into hiding. Their footprints remained very much alive amidst the changing dynamics of infectious diseases, due to increasing population, economic globalization, environmental degradation and ever-increasing interaction across the globe. The scenario on hand seems to have proved right the words of the 19th century famed microbiologist, Louis Pasteur, who said: “Gentlemen, it is the microbes who will have the last word.”

The question is why the current global governance structure and operational synergies within and among various countries, institutions and international bodies have failed to adequately respond to the emerging crisis of infectious diseases and outbreak. While science may have been unsuccessful on many counts, the bigger problem has been the inability of the leaders to incorporate among their priorities these issues as threat multipliers. Part of the problem lies with the perception that could not harness the intensity of the crisis the infectious diseases could perpetrate on the safety of human life.

Most of the international and national discourse on issues of security is either anchored to regional or a state’s stability, demanding an enhanced defence infrastructure or to climate change, seeking the elimination of greenhouse gases and a system dependent on fossil fuel. The idea of human security at risk because of infectious diseases in terms of its potential to result in catastrophic loss of life has failed to capture the imagination of the policymakers both at the national and international levels. Even global agencies such as the World Health Organization and the rest of the United Nations System seem to have lacked the focus required to provide international support and coordination.

Imagine the level of preparedness and focus of countries that are economically and financially week and have been traditionally underinvesting in the health sector, such as Pakistan. indeed, our healthcare and public health capacity pose a serious threat to the population while creating acute vulnerability for the world.

Coronavirus has the potential to invade Pakistan because of the continuous and consistent business-to-business linkages between the two nations, resulting in hundreds of Pakistanis and Chinese traveling to each other’s country. If experience about handling infectious diseases is of any reference than our usual response has usually been scrambling for resources and mode of treatment once the disease has played itself out in full spectrum. Being reactive rather than proactive, and lacking the will to invest in prevention will have serious consequences in the future, especially when infectious diseases are stalking the earth ever more eagerly.

Therefore, we need to put our house in order by adopting at least three recommendations: One, to invest in public health capabilities and infrastructure; two, to reinforce the role of leadership and coordination for preparedness and response; and three, to begin research and development in infectious diseases arena. Together these solutions would build a comprehensive and coherent framework to make the country safer against the threat of not only infectious but all kinds of diseases.

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