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Members of a Thai Airways crew prepare to disinfect the cabin of an aircraft to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program speaks during a news conference on the coronavirus situation at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 29, 2020.
Australia plans to send its citizens evacuated from China to a quarantine camp on Christmas Island, there’s a global run on face masks and, in Toronto, thousands of parents have petitioned to keep children whose families have visited China home from school.
Nothing fuels a new disease outbreak quite like fear, one of the most primitive human emotions. But is the alarm undue?
“Of course people are concerned — why wouldn’t people be concerned,” Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program, said Wednesday.
The spread of the disease outside China is a “grave concern,” WHO officials warned, adding that the virus may spread not just via droplets, but also by touching contaminated surfaces.
No one wants to downplay the threat, but neither is the outbreak an apocalyptic, 'end of civilization as we know it' scenario
Canada, meanwhile, announced plans to fly Canadians out of the province of Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak, once it secures China’s cooperation. Air Canada announced its plans to halt all flights to Beijing and Shanghai while Ottawa issued new warnings to Canadians to avoid travel to the country.
On Thursday, a WHO emergency committee will reconvene to deliberate whether the outbreak constitutes a “public health emergency of international concern,” and if so, what more will be needed to contain it.
China now has more cases of the rogue virus than it had of SARS, according to the New York Times.
The number of confirmed cases has surpassed 6,000 worldwide, all but 71 of them in China, and more than 130 people have lost their lives to the outbreak, again, all of them in China. But while the numbers outside China are still relatively small, “they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak,” WHO director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a media briefing.
The outbreak, at this stage, is “still obviously a very active” one, added Ryan.
The source is still unclear, the rapid acceleration of cases is worrying and the true death rate is still unknown, Ryan said, adding that even a relatively mild virus “can cause a lot of damage if a lot of people get it.” A new paper fast-tracked for release by the journal The Lancet by Chinese scientists found the virus is more likely to affect older men (average age 55) with pre-existing health problems, and can result in severe disease, including fatal respiratory diseases like acute respiratory distress syndrome.
But when asked if the outbreak has led to media overkill, Ryan was reflective. “A new virus has emerged, we don’t have a therapy and we don’t have a vaccine.” The virus, which is thought to have originated in bats, has crossed the species barrier, caused a major outbreak in China and people shouldn’t be criticized for being worried about it, Ryan said.
In the absence of a vaccine or drugs, “effective risk communication is the most powerful tool,” he said.
No one wants to downplay the threat, but neither is the outbreak the apocalyptic, “end of civilization as we know it” scenario portrayed by some media, Robert Bartholomew, an American born medical sociologist, author and professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand wrote in Psychology Today. The images of haz-mat-suited doctors and nurses in China “need to be tempered with reality,” he said. SARS, a variant of the new coronavirus that killed 744 people in 37 countries, mostly China and Hong Kong, had a 10 per cent death rate. Based on current modelling, the mortality rate for the coronavirus is hovering around two per cent.
The best inoculation against panic, Bartholomew and others have noted, is transparency and accurate information. And people react differently to different sources of information.
Around the time of Three Mile Island nuclear reactor partial meltdown in 1979, “the public was transitioning away from absolute trust and credibility in self-appointed authorities,” said Terry Flynn, associate professor of communications management at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
During the SARS crisis, people lost confidence in the ability of public health officials to manage the outbreak. There were muddled messages and confusion. “And it had this kind of odd name, and people are afraid of odd names,” Flynn said. “SARS became this kind of bogeyman.” He was teaching at Syracuse University at the time and was taking a group of students to Kingston, Ont., on a field trip. “And parents were calling me to not let their children go because they were afraid as soon as they went to Canada they’d contract SARS.”
This time around, Flynn believes health authorities have done a decent job communicating the risks. Research holds that in high concern, low trust environments, people need to express empathy and concern, openness and honesty, trust and expertise.
With risk issues, “we always want the person who is receiving the information to have absolute agency at the end of the day,” unless it’s an immediate health threat.
Australia, where massive bushfires have ripped through the landscape, might be quarantining its citizens out of an abundance of caution, Flynn said. “Here we can quickly identify who is a public health threat and who isn’t and once we do that they will be returned back to their family.”
Ryan, of WHO, said the chain of transmission can still be interrupted by identifying and isolating people who have become infected and basic infection control precautions: keeping a distance from people when they’re sick, and hand hygiene.
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