New virus has authorities on alert

UPDATED: With more travellers on the move in the lead-up to Chinese New Year, a deadly new pneumonia-type virus that originated in China has health authorities in Australia on high alert.

Australia will screen passengers on key flights from China – and a number of countries across the globe are doing the same – in a bid to detect the SARS-like virus, which can be transmitted by human contact and has infected 220 and killed 17. A Brisbane man returning from China was tested and released from home isolation. 

SARS – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – killed almost 800 people 17 years ago.

The first outbreak of this coronavirus – a family of viruses that can cause illness in people and animals – was in Wuhan City in China on New Year’s Eve and is linked to a seafood market that has since been closed down. Chinese health authorities have confirmed that the virus is spreading to humans who had not frequented the market.

Australia’s chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, said late last week that screening at points of entry into Australia was unnecessary. However, after confirmed cases in the US, Thailand, Japan, South Korea and a number of Chinese cities, screening measures have been put in place.

Australian Border Force staff and NSW health authorities will focus on the thrice-weekly direct flights from Wuhan City to Sydney. But authorities will also assess the 160 direct flights from China each week, as well as the hundreds of indirect flights.

“[Authorities] will be providing to all the passengers an information pamphlet in English and Mandarin, outlining the symptoms this disease might deliver and asking them to identify themselves at the border,” Mr Murphy said. “If anyone has a fever or suspect they might have this disease, and if they are suspected of having this condition, New South Wales Health will follow up as per our normal border security and biosecurity protocols.”

Symptoms include fever, coughing, tightness of the chest and shortness of breath, with scans of some patients showing fluid in the lungs consistent with viral pneumonia.

Temperature scanning was conducted at airports during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, but was found to be ineffective and would not be reinstated, Mr Murphy said, even though a case in Thailand was reportedly detected by an airport temperature scanner.

“It [temperature scanning] missed a large number of cases,” he said, “cases that may be incubating or afebrile. It leads to a false sense of security. It’s not an effective public health mechanism.”

Mr Murphy said that despite all precautions, there was no failsafe way to keep the virus out of the country.

“The important thing to remember is with border screening you cannot absolutely prevent the spread of disease into the country,” he said.

“The incubation period is probably a week. Many people who have this may present as asymptomatic. So, it’s about identifying those with a high risk and making sure those who have a high risk know about it and know how to get medical attention.”

Mr Murphy said the health department was in discussions with the department of foreign affairs and trade about providing some specific advice for Wuhan “as the evolving situation requires”.

Concerned travellers should check on Smartraveller for the latest advice.

Associate Professor Adam Kamradt-Scott, from the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that while authorities were “operating in the dark to a certain degree”, there was no evidence of “widespread human-to-human transmission”.

“Otherwise we’d be seeing a large number of cases, far beyond what we’ve currently got.”

Will this virus upset your travel plans? Will you be extra vigilant for the symptoms?

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