Virus has 'low public health risk in S'pore'

Doctors here are on the lookout for a new Sars-like bug that has struck two people and killed one in the Middle East. But for now, the public health risk is low, the Health Ministry (MOH) said on Saturday.

No cases have been identified outside of the Middle East and unlike other epidemics, this virus has not spread to those who were in close contact with the two victims.

When taking samples from the first victim, scientists identified the novel coronavirus as a new strain that causes similar symptoms to severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).

But while the symptoms are similar, this is not Sars and it does not spread the same way.

The two men who were infected are not related and fell ill separately.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a global alert on Sept 24, meaning that health authorities worldwide should stay alert, and possible cases have to be reported.

MOH has assessed the public health risk in Singapore to be low, but it has alerted hospitals to be on the lookout.

What exactly is this novel coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of virus that exist in humans and animals.

It causes a variety of infections ranging from the mild (common cold) to the more serious (Sars).

The clinical director of Singapore's Communicable Disease Centre, Associate Professor Leo Yee Sin, said this particular virus is a very new strain of coronavirus whose full genome sequence has not been published.

The term "novel" comes from the fact that it is still new - Sars was also referred to as a "novel coronavirus" in its early days.

At a microbiological level, this particular strain seems more similar to Sars than the common cold. But doctors emphasise that it does not spread the way Sars did because those who came in contact with the two cases have not been infected.

The new virus was identified by Dr Ali Mohamed Zaki at the Virology Laboratory of Dr Soliman Fakeeh Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

How many cases are there so far?

So far, only two cases have been reported worldwide: A 60-year-old Saudi Arabian man, who died from it in July; and a 49-year-old Qatari man who visited Saudi Arabia before falling ill. On Sept 11, he was transferred to the UK for treatment and is still in critical condition.

The two cases are not related, except for the fact that they were both in Saudi Arabia.

How does it spread?

It is possible that like most viruses, it is spread in the droplets when a patient coughs or sneezes, though experts believe that it is not very contagious.

But Prof Leo said that unlike Sars, this new virus seems lacking in human-to-human transmission. But health authorities are closely watching the situation.

Doctors are still uncertain and think that it might be the mutation of an existing virus, or one circulating among animals that has made the jump to humans.

What are some symptoms?

The virus causes respiratory illness and symptoms including fever, cough and/or breathlessness. This eventually leads to severe pneumonia and kidney failure.

Can it be treated?

Because it is so new, doctors are still unclear about how to best treat it. But as with Sars, those with severe symptoms would need help to breathe.

Should Singaporeans beconcerned?

There is no reason to be alarmed because the virus has not been seen to spread.

But Singaporeans who have just returned from Saudi Arabia or Qatar should look out for the above symptoms and visit a doctor immediately.

What about travellers going on the Haj to Mecca next month?

Prof Leo said that travellers returning from Saudi Arabia and Qatar should monitor their health by looking out for signs and symptoms of respiratory illness.

She added that Haj pilgrims can be vaccinated against influenza and meningitis as advised by the Saudi health authority.

The WHO said in a statement that it is working with the Saudi authorities on health measures.

lawsm@sph.com.sg

 

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