The community of Wuhan, a previously little-known area of China in the West, has become a global name due to the rise and spread coronavirus in the last month. This public health crisis is being watched closely by many global health organizations, including the World Health Organization, and is disrupting travel and healthcare systems across the globe. For many in the public health sector, this particular outbreak, and the world’s handling of it, sheds light on best practices in the public health field.
Here is a closer look at the outbreak, what has been done about it, and how the public health machine works on a global basis when facing a serious health threat.
Timeline of the Coronavirus Outbreak
On December 31, 2019, a number of pneumonia cases in the community of Wuhan, China, were reported to the World Health Organization. A week later on January 7, Chinese authorities confirmed that a new coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, was the cause of the outbreak. By January 11, 2020, the first death from the virus was announced.
On January 13 the infection was reported in Thailand, arriving from a Chinese national traveling from Wuhan, and three days later a Japanese man, who also traveled to Wuhan, presented with the virus in Japan. The death toll started to grow, with a second and third death in China reported by January 20. On January 21, health officials in the United States confirmed the first US case – less than a month after its discovery. On January 31, President Trump’s administration decided to deny entry to foreign nationals who had traveled to China within the past 14 days, just a day after person-to-person transmission of the virus was confirmed in the United States. On this same day, the WHO officially declared coronavirus a “Global Health Emergency.” By February 7, 2020, the death toll from the coronavirus had reached 638, and the virus was confirmed in several countries in Europe.
The 2019-nCoV outbreak has been compared to the SARS outbreak of 2002 and the MERS outbreak of 2012. Both of these outbreaks had high mortality rates, 9.6% and 34.4% respectively, and spread to 29 and 28 countries. As of January 31, the coronavirus had infected 11,871 people in 24 countries with a mortality rate of 2.2%, but those numbers appear to continue to grow.
Public Health Response to the Coronavirus
In a relatively short period of time, public health organizations across the globe went on high alert.
World Health Organization Response
The WHO has responded by preparing a Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan that provides resources and activities for international health organizations across the globe to implement public health measures to respond to the virus. The primary goal for this initial period is to stop the spread of the virus. This requires:
- Identifying infected individuals
- Isolating infected individuals to prevent human-to-human contact
- Providing care for patients early to prevent coronavirus related deaths
- Finding appropriate ways to communicate risk information to the general public
- Minimizing the social and economic impact of the virus
In addition, because initial research indicates the coronavirus spreads from animals to humans, the initial steps include plans to reduce the spread among animals and from animals to humans. This initial plan is expected to cost $675 million.
WHO Emphasizing Need for Global Help
As part of the WHO’s plan, a call has been made for international health organizations to work together to control the spread of the virus and the spread of information about it to the general public. In order to effectively address this concern, the plan works to establish international coordination and support, increase country readiness in areas at high risk, and prioritize research and innovation to help support patients who contract the virus.
CDC Response to Coronavirus Outbreak
In the United States, the CDC has taken decisive action to respond to the coronavirus. Quarantine stations have been set up at 18 US ports of entry, and enhanced screening of travelers on flights through Wuhan, China, have been implemented at the appropriate airports. All travelers who have been through the affected province must go through screening at the CDC. The CDC also created a real-time test to diagnose 2019-nCoV from respiratory samples, which makes screening of travelers easier to manage. Any infected individuals are promptly given medical care in a safe, quarantine environment.
Public Health Policy Needs Highlighted
So far, it appears the coordinated global public health effort is working well to control the spread of the new coronavirus, but the virus is still in the early stages of spreading. Some of the best practices seen by both the CDC and WHO, as well as other international organizations, include:
- Screening airport travelers from China
- Operating quarantine stations
- Tracking sick patients to perform contact tracing
- Sending educated personnel to the communities where infected individuals were found to educate local healthcare departments
- Developing and distributing the diagnostic test
- Educating the general public about best practices, such as avoiding travel to China
In addition, the National Institutes of Health has increased lab research to start working towards antiviral drugs and vaccine options to help with this outbreak.
But the real question remains — is it enough? Are these efforts going to be sufficient to keep the public informed, without creating unnecessary hysteria, and protect the world against the spread of this deadly virus? Will international health organizations be able to put aside politics and economics to work together to protect their local communities? Many warn that existing resources could soon be stretched thin and that public health organizations must find a way to convey the threat to the general public so that it is taken seriously, without inciting a sense of panic.
The coronavirus outbreak is just one more in a series of recent public health crises that point to the need for more people trained in public health. For those interested in joining the public health community, a Master of Public Health Degree from the Keck School of Medicine of USC can be a good first step.