By Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus is a public health emergency of international concern. The highest level of international solidarity and cooperation is needed to protect health and keep people safe. Since the novel coronavirus emerged in late December, the number of cases reported globally has climbed, and human-to-human transmission has been reported in a number of countries. It is imperative that countries report and share information on suspected cases early, provide detailed reports on confirmed cases, and ensure all people receive the care they need in accordance with human rights and dignity.
The World Health Organization’s South-East Asia Region must continue to strengthen its readiness to respond. In recent weeks several countries in the region have detected and reported cases of coronavirus. The vigilance of health authorities in each country is commendable, and reflects region-wide efforts to strengthen emergency risk management, which is one of the eight priority programmes in the region. Member states have made substantial progress in recent years to strengthen health systems to achieve universal health coverage and to build core capacities required by International Health Regulations (IHR) – the international legal framework that helps countries work together for global health security.
The response to the emergence and spread of coronavirus has been rapid. Over the past month, WHO has worked with countries around the world to roll out a series of preparedness measures, including guidance on how to detect and manage cases, improve infection prevention and control, and reduce transmission. In Southeast Asia, WHO and its member states have focused on increasing their ability to rapidly detect and care for patients, and to guard against transmission. To date, most cases reported in the region have been imported. It is imperative that the region’s countries scale up vigilance, and prepare to prevent, control and interrupt local transmission.
There is much that we do not yet know about the virus, but which we are working to find out. The world’s best scientists are on the case. As we learn more, WHO will continue to provide member states and the public high-quality information through regular situation reports and our social media accounts. Accurate, timely information empowers all people to assess risks and to take preventive measures. Regular hand-washing, coughing or sneezing into one’s elbow, avoiding close contact with people with flu-like symptoms, and thoroughly cooking meat and eggs are all great ways to stay healthy and to limit one’s exposure to pathogens.
The IHR and the region’s own Delhi Declaration on Emergency Preparedness, which member states adopted last September, are clear: By implementing evidence-based policies, health authorities can increase their capacity to detect and control emerging and re-emerging diseases, care for affected people and protect health workers.
As member states make all efforts to tackle coronavirus, several priorities stand out.
- First, we must strengthen early warning, alert and disease-surveillance systems. To help individuals monitor their own health, authorities at ports of entry can provide information on the virus to all travellers. Contingency plans to assess and manage ill passengers should be developed where they don’t already exist. Event-based surveillance should be scaled up, including via detailed case reporting, which will help authorities better understand the virus and more effectively respond. Regular risk assessments should be conducted using multiple sources of data.
- Second, health authorities can limit the spread of the virus by vigorously enforcing infection prevention and control in health facilities. By making personal protective equipment accessible, they will protect health workers. Triaging systems for patients with acute respiratory illness will increase the efficiency of health facilities, as will clear patient placement and transportation procedures. WHO’s technical guidance on clinical case management should inform facility-based care.
- Third, rapid response teams must be equipped to act decisively. At national and state levels, response teams must have adequate resources, both logistical and financial. They must have the skills to carry out contact tracing and to collect biological samples for respiratory pathogens. It is imperative that national command and coordination structures for emergency response are activated, and relevant sectors – such as the animal health sector – are brought on board if needed.
- Fourth, the importance of providing accurate and timely information must be fully grasped across sectors, and at all levels of government. Streamlined procedures for developing and clearing transparent communication and messaging will increase responsiveness. Information that empowers people to protect themselves will promote trust. Systems to correct misunderstandings, misinformation and rumours will ensure that all people can make health-positive decisions that are based on facts and evidence.
(Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh is WHO’s regional director for Southeast Asia)