As fears of the novel coronavirus present in China — as well as multiple other nations at the time of writing — spread, an Indian teacher working in the country has been announced as the first non-Chinese individual to contract the condition.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has stepped back from declaring the situation regarding the disease to be an international emergency, though has opted to hold further meetings today to discuss the evolving situation.
The number of cases of the disease — which presents pneumonia-like symptoms and has in numerous cases now proven to be fatal — stands at 540 in China at the time of writing. A further two cases have been documented in Thailand, with one in Japan and one in South Korea. The cases have been speculated to have originated in a seafood market in Wuhan, though the respiratory illness has now spread and has been detected in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
Preeti Maheshwari, a 45-year-old teacher in an international school, was admitted to a local hospital in Shenzhen with symptoms similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome. She was later confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus disease sweeping the country.
The Indian government has issued a travel advisory warning to its citizens, particularly those travelling to Wuhan. It has been noted that a large number of Indian students currently reside in the city, many of whom have travelled back to India for the Lunar New Year holiday. Though this may — for the time-being — put them out of harm’s way, this highlights another major factor in the epidemic potential of this new disease and other communicable conditions: international travel.
Health experts have questioned India’s preparedness for the potential spread of the disease. The Union Health Ministry has instructed screening of travellers from China at airports in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata via thermal scanners — already in excess of 9,000 individuals have been screened for the disease. This shows a measure of preparation. However, given the potential for a future surge in disease cases, more than just a handful of airports will need to be monitored.
Girish Kumar Mahajan, a New Delhi-based public health expert, commented to Livemint that all countries are susceptible to new viruses because their populations have no immunity against them. “In India, we are not well-equipped to identify disease-carrying people at our ports of entry,” he said. “Moreover, it will not be easy to diagnose coronavirus as the symptoms resemble ordinary cold, cough or respiratory diseases.
“This virus will thrive in any overpopulated country because of the close proximity of people. In a country like ours, where masses are malnourished and have poor resistance to disease in general, we are sitting ducks to the attack of new viruses.” Indeed, India faces similar issues to China, given the comparable sizes of their populations. Both countries are home to well over one billion people, with cities harbouring tens of millions of people in close proximity.
The urban poor are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks such as these. Densely packed living arrangements, often in slum-like areas where numerous people live in confined spaces with substandard sanitation, allows for viruses to spread rapidly. Reliance on public transport for work can expose thousands of individuals to a disease in the space of hours.
Though a large-scale outbreak of the disease in India may seem like a remote prospect, it may be gaining traction faster than media coverage currently suggests. A study by Imperial College London estimates a total of 1,723 cases of the virus named 2019-nCoV in Wuhan City. “It is likely that the Wuhan outbreak of a novel coronavirus has caused substantially more cases of moderate or severe respiratory illness than currently reported,” the study said. “Past experience with SARS and MERS-CoV outbreaks of similar scale suggests currently self-sustaining human-to-human transmission should not be ruled out.”
Since the publication of the study, Chinese health authorities have confirmed that person-to-person transmission of the disease is indeed taking place. A WHO spokesperson commented on the revelation that fourteen health workers had contracted the disease. “Health care worker infections are one of the early indicators that human to human transmission is occurring, because they are among the more exposed due to their profession,” they noted.
As cases are being detected in surrounding countries, it is likely that the disease will continue to spread into the expected future. Studies have already suggested that the diseases count of the novel coronavirus is higher than figures suggest. This is due to many cases flying under the radar. every precaution must be taken to prevent further spread. India has shown great capacity in containing outbreaks in the past. To avoid a potential epidemic, these skills must be applied rigorously.