GENEVA, Switzerland, (UN News) — The World Health Organisation (WHO) has repeatedly decried a lack of urgency on the part of many countries when it comes to testing, isolation and contact tracing (i.e. carefully monitoring people who are in close contact with someone who has been infected).
In Monday’s briefing, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO, director-general, acknowledged the rapid escalation in social distancing measures worldwide, which include many more school closures, the cancelling of sporting events and, in some countries, the closure of businesses where people congregate, such as restaurants, bars, cinemas, and theatres.
“The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate, Once again, our message is test, test, test,” WHO chief said.
Simply following guidelines for personal behaviour (such as social distancing, regular handwashing and coughing into your elbow) said Ghebreyesus, are simply not enough to “extinguish the pandemic”.
We cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected Ghebreyesus said, “You cannot fight a fire blindfolded” underscoring the importance of testing every single case. “We cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected,” he said.
Around 1.5 million tests have been sent to 120 countries by the WHO to meet global demand, and the agency is working with companies to make them available to those in need.
Ghebreyesus noted that many countries have already exceeded their capacity to care for mild cases in health facilities and, if they are in that situation, they should prioritize older patients and those with underlying conditions.
One option for patients with mild symptoms is for them to be isolated and cared for at home, he explained. This may put others in the same household at risk, so caregivers should follow WHO guidance on how to provide care as safely as possible.
The patient and caregiver should, for example, wear medical masks when they’re in the same room, sleep in separate bedrooms and use a different bathroom; the caregiver should wash hands after any contact with the patient or the patient’s immediate environment, and visitors should not be allowed. Because patients can still infect others after they stop feeling sick, the measures should continue for at least two weeks after symptoms disappear.
Frequent hand washing is not only a matter of personal hygiene: it is also, declared Ghebreyesus, an act of solidarity, because it reduces the risk that you will infect others, in your community and around the world: “do it for yourself, do it for others”, he said. WHO is also asking people to express their solidarity by not hoarding essential items. Hoarding can create shortages of medicines and other essential products, which can exacerbate suffering.
However, Ghebreyesus welcomed the response to the coronavirus Solidarity Fund, launched by the WHO and partners on Friday. Since then, some 110,000 people have contributed almost $19 million, which will be used to buy diagnostic tests, supplies for health workers and support research and development.
The WHO chief also mentioned the #safehands challenge, an online awareness-raising exercise, encouraging people to share their videos promoting the importance of correct handwashing, which has been attracting attention from many participants, including celebrities and world leaders.
Meanwhile, China’s experience in containing the spread of the new coronavirus could serve as a lesson for other countries now facing the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is an epidemic that has been nipped as it was growing and stopped in its tracks. This is very clear from the data that we have, as well as the observations that we can see in society in general”, said Dr Gauden Galea.
“So that’s a big lesson: that the natural course of the outbreak does not need to be a very high peak that overwhelms health services. This lesson in containment, therefore, is a lesson that other countries can learn from and adapt for their own circumstances”.
COVID-19 is the most recently discovered of the coronaviruses which are known to cause respiratory infections such as MERS and SARS.
Dr Galea reported that there were three main questions to understand during this initial phase: How the virus was being transmitted, its severity, and control measures.
“In a way, the first three weeks were very deeply involved in looking into the local epidemiological investigation, in asking questions of the national investigators, seeking interpretation by international networks of experts, developing risk communications around the information that we had, sending out the message across the media, reaching out to partners in the UN and in the missions in China based in Beijing”, he said.
He highlighted the “high price” paid by Wuhan’s citizens with the lockdown, thus “buying time” for the rest of China and the world.
“But that containment was effective and did allow the rest of China to be able to contain the outbreak in a very effective manner. The shape of the epidemic and the small number of cases that were seen outside Hubei are a testimony to the success and the effectiveness”, he said.
“It’s very important to realise that such shortcomings are not unique to China, and that very few countries are manifesting any greater speed in action”.
“When you realise that a public health emergency of international concern was declared on January 30, and as we speak, we are now mid-March, it’s very important to understand that any country that still has not heeded the call needs to be acting and acting fast: not least preparing the population through appropriate risk communication”, said Dr Galea.
With the caseload in China on the decline, WHO is working to share lessons learned there for the benefit of other countries now facing COVID-19.
Dr Galea praised the timely cooperation with the National Health Commission, its counterpart in the country. Early and frequent exchanges resulted in sharing of the genetic sequence of the virus, as well as the specifications for designing tests so other countries would be able to identify it.
“The biggest conclusion is that China has demonstrated that the course of the outbreak can be altered. Normally, an outbreak of this nature would have exponential growth, would reach a high peak, and would then decline naturally once all susceptible people have been infected, or developed the disease. This has not happened in China in a number of ways,” he said.
“One: the shape of the course of the events – the graph, the epidemic curve, as we call it, of the numbers of cases over time – appears very unnatural. It is an epidemic that has been nipped as it was growing and stopped in its tracks. This is very clear from the data that we have, as well as the observations that we can see in society in general.
“So, that’s a big lesson that the natural course of the outbreak does not need to be a very high peak that overwhelms health services. This lesson in containment, therefore, is a lesson that other countries can learn from and adapt to their circumstances”.
One lesson so far has been the importance of having strong national public health systems. Dr Galea underlined the need for preparation and the value of providing all citizens with access to health care.