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Screening system gaps may blunt India’s fight against deadly coronavirus

Even as the World Health Organisation is about to declare novel Corona virus as an international health emergency, experts point out that it could be tricky to detect the patients in real time. 

Published: 22nd January 2020 01:38 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd January 2020 04:42 PM   |  A+A-

The coronavirus can spread person to person, though not nearly as easily as viruses such as measles or influenza.

The virus can spread person to person, though not nearly as easily as viruses such as measles or influenza. (Photo | AP)

Express News Service

NEW DELHI: Even as the World Health Organisation is about to declare novel Coronavirus as an international health emergency, experts point out that it could be tricky to detect the patients in real-time. 

While the Centre’s Integrated Disease Surveillance Program (IDSP) has issued advisory to all states for severe acute respiratory illness surveillance to pick up any travel-related case reported in the community, the program’s inherent gaps that prevent it from efficiently picking up isolated cases - until a sufficient number of cases are recognised as an outbreak - has raised concerns.

Neighbouring China has scampered to contain the spread of the new virus that has left at least six people dead and infected almost 300. It was in the Chinese city of Wuhan where the first case of infection from the virus, which causes pneumonia-like symptoms, was detected.

Initial reports said the virus was unlikely to spread between humans, but Chinese health officials have now confirmed that there is “definitely human-to-human transmission”.  

A study by researchers in the UK even estimated that the number of infections in Wuhan is underestimated, with the real number closer to 1,700, based on the spread of the virus to other cities and countries in a relatively short period.

Explainer: What's a coronavirus and why is the world panicking about the Chinese outbreak?

In India, the Health Ministry has been issuing guidelines to states and airports to screen any suspicious passengers travelling back from China. The advisory issued last week said IDSP has advised: “all states/UTs for SARI surveillance to pick up any travel-related case reported in the community and follow up contacts of suspect/confirmed cases”. 

The IDSP, which is supposed to show real-time update of any disease outbreak in the country, however, is not updated and shows data only about a month old. 

“There are concerns about IDSP but since we have to rely on states to feed data, we can only urge them to do it quickly,” admitted a health ministry official.

“It’s a fact that country’s disease surveillance network lacks the capacity to efficiently pick up isolated cases of unusual infections from the communities.”  Dr T Jacob John, a community health expert at Christian Medical College, Vellore, said India’s best chances of containing any importation of the virus would lie in detecting patients at airports.

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