For those living in well-connected global cities such as Singapore, it is difficult to stay calm when new and unknown bugs spread pneumonia in Wuhan, China – just a 41/2-hour flight away.
So far, 44 people have been affected; 11 are seriously ill. Many people here still remember the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) which hit Singapore hard in 2003. Sars was a painful chapter. It, too, emerged from China and was brought here by just one person who had been to Hong Kong. It brought two months of fear in its wake, infected 238 people, including medical staff who attended to early victims. Sars killed 33 people here.
It led to the closure of one of Singapore's busiest hospitals, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, to the general public and was estimated to have cost the Singapore economy close to $1 billion. That said, it is equally important not to overreact. Especially since the lessons learnt from Sars have strengthened Singapore's defences.
That is why Professor Leo Yee Sin, executive director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID), does not think that the outbreak in Wuhan will mirror the impact of Sars.
First, Singapore is much better prepared today than it was in 2003. The airport has already started screening people flying in from Wuhan. All doctors have been alerted to the possible importation of a new bug.
So, even if it does come here, there is a good chance that it can be caught early and isolated. When a case of monkeypox was identified here last year – brought in by a Nigerian visitor – it was quickly contained and did not spread.
The staff at the NCID are also experienced in dealing with infectious diseases, with many, including Prof Leo herself, having treated Sars victims.
However, Prof Leo said there are still many unknowns about the new bug in Wuhan, which currently appears to be a pneumonia virus. "We really do not know the characteristics of the disease at this time," she told The Straits Times. That is why it is difficult to say if treating the symptoms alone is enough to help those infected.
So far, the new bug appears to be transmitted directly from animal to human. But Prof Leo cautioned: "We should not be too complacent that at the moment it is not (transmitting from) human to human. There is always still the possibility that it could become human to human."
That is an ability that viruses have. They mutate to increase their chances of survival.
But often when that happens, they become less deadly because killing off the host usually means the end of the spread of the virus.
Those that spread easily tend to be less virulent.
Also, not all new infectious diseases become a major problem. Every year, a handful of new or re-emerging infectious diseases surface somewhere in the world.
Over the past few years, only a few have been of major concern – such as Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) and, of course, Sars.
So, while Prof Leo's advice is "we don't really need to panic", she also added that "we should also not be unconcerned about it".
The drill is straightforward. Those travelling to or from Wuhan need to be aware of the situation.
Those with fever, cough or a runny nose should see a doctor and wear a mask in public.
General-practice doctors need to be alert to the symptoms of the disease and flag suspicious cases.
The Ministry of Health and infectious-disease doctors are closely monitoring the situation in China.
Until more is known, it is best to be alert. But life can still go on as normal.
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Source: The Straits Times © Singapore
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