The risk of a new, mysterious strain of Coronavirus to the Caribbean is “low” but public health officials need to be prepared for a possible outbreak here, said Dr Joy St John, the former chief medical officer of Barbados who is now the head of the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA).
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 2019 novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) was identified by Chinese authorities in Wuhan, Hubei Province. The virus was never before thought to be transmitted from human to human.
Since the original notice two weeks ago, there have been more than 300 cases reported globally – up to Tuesday. Then, late on Wednesday, the Chinese National Health Committee reported more than 571 confirmed cases of patients with pneumonia, and 17 deaths from the 2019-nCoV.
The virus has since spread to Thailand, Republic of Korea and the United States.
There have been no confirmed cases or reports of coronavirus in the Caribbean so far, and based on current information, the immediate health risk from this virus to the general public remains low, Dr St John said.
In a statement, she said: “CARPHA is monitoring developments and working closely with its international health partners to respond to this health threat and provide timely advice and support to the preparedness activities of Caribbean Member States.”
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).
Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
This 2019-nCoV virus is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans.
She added: “CARPHA is aware that this is an early stage of the outbreak and is awaiting clarity on the characterization of the behaviour of the virus, including severity of the infection, and the level of transmissibility.
“Therefore, out of an abundance of caution, CARPHA is recommending that member states be proactive and vigilant.
“They must reinforce surveillance measures at points of entry, communication strategies which emphasize good hand hygiene, and measures targeted at reducing the importation of this new virus to our shores.”
Reports out of China today indicated that travel in and out of the Wuhan City has been restricted by officials in an effort to curtail further spread of the disease.
Currently, there are no restrictions on international travel and no special precautions travellers need to take when travelling to the Caribbean since there have been no reported cases of 2019-nCoV in the Caribbean.
CARPHA has advised travellers to stay informed about the 2019-nCoV situation in any countries to which they are travelling and practice general infection control measures, such as frequent hand washing with soap and water or use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
As with any other novel and imported disease, 2019-nCoV is causing heightened concern in the region, the agency acknowledged.
CARPHA, Dr St John said, is committed to supporting its member states in “refining existing influenza preparedness plans, refreshing training of health care works in universal precautions and the use of necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), and implementing measures to protect the most vulnerable in our populations from developing the disease”.
In the event that there is a suspected imported case of 2019-nCoV in the Caribbean, the regional public health watchdog said arrangements are already in place with partner public health agencies for testing within the next three weeks, while awaiting delivery of “necessary supplies”.