With the numbers of cases of novel coronavirus continuing to grow across the world, experts believe the chance of a pandemic being declared is a growing possibility — but not all agree.
- A pandemic is a sustained transmission of a new disease among populations in a number of countries
- It is different to the World Health Organisation’s declaration of coronavirus as a “global emergency” last week
- The Federal Government has a pandemic plan, but experts are torn on whether it will reach that status
A pandemic has occurred multiple times during the past century — most recently during 2009’s swine flu outbreak — and is declared after a sustained transmission of a new disease amongst populations in a number of countries.
And although the world — and Australia — is not there yet, according to University of Queensland virologist Ian Mackay, that can change quickly.
“It could happen if we get too many travellers who are infected in too many places, and we may be overwhelmed,” Dr Mackay said.
“That’s the worst-case scenario.”
It is a sentiment shared by infectious disease physiologist Trent Yarwood, who believes a pandemic declaration is imminent.
“The coronavirus outbreak is likely to get worse,” Dr Yarwood said.
“We’re seeing deaths occurring outside of China now, the number of cases being officially reported is increasing [and] obviously there’s a lot of cases particularly in China that we don’t know about because the official statistics are only based on people who get tested.
“We’re not yet seeing transmission in multiple countries so it doesn’t really meet the definition yet but I think we would have to expect that it will in the next couple of weeks.”
While the novel coronavirus appears to be very contagious, the death rate remains low at around 2-3 per cent, well below the 10 per cent death rate from SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003.
Dr Mackay said the two-week quarantine periods being put in place should ensure that anyone who did have the virus was not spreading it.
And according to UNSW global biosecurity professor Raina MacIntyre, coronavirus becoming a pandemic was “not necessarily a given”.
“SARS was assessed to be a similar level of infectiousness and that did not cause an epidemic,” Professor MacIntyre said.
“It’s possible we’ll have small outbreaks as we’ve seen in the US and Germany but I think we have good resources and good mechanisms to jump on this straight away and make sure it doesn’t get to the epidemic stage.”
The history of pandemics
One of the most devastating pandemics was the 1918 Spanish influenza.
It infected more than one-third of the world’s population and killed approximately 50 million people.
Since then, there have been flu pandemics in the late 1950s and 1960s and more recently swine flu (H1N1) from 2009 to late 2010.
According to Dr Yarwood, as coronavirus is “geographically localised” there is no need to panic.
“The figures suggest it’s more dangerous than flu but remember we’re only seeing the severe cases, there’s probably lots of people out there who haven’t been tested that we don’t know about,” he said.
“[But] it’s really important to be taking all the control measures that we can now to try and slow it down.
“That gives our scientists and everyone more of a chance to develop blood tests to track it better, obviously vaccines are going to be a long way away before they’re in clinical use, and everything we can do to slow it down now gives us more time to prepare.”
What does a pandemic mean in Australia?
If coronavirus is deemed to be a pandemic, the Federal Government’s Health Protection Committee will activate the “national pandemic preparedness plan“.
It’s a detailed plan drawn up by health experts to deal with the serious outbreak of a contagious disease.
The plan is based on a worst-case scenario, such as the Spanish flu pandemic.
It was updated in 2009 after the swine flu pandemic.
But it canvasses three options, from a mild illness to a more severe pandemic.
If the severity is low, the majority of people experience mild to moderate symptoms while people in high-risk groups may experience more severe illness.
According to experts, this appears to be the case with the novel coronavirus so far.
But there are plans for what might happen if this virus — or others in the future — becomes more serious.
For example, non-urgent surgery would be scaled back and clinics set up to deal with increased demands, particularly as “young healthy people” and people in “at-risk groups” experience severe illness.
“Healthcare staff may themselves be ill or have to care for ill family members, further exacerbating pressures on healthcare providers,” the report said.
According to the Federal Health department measures would be put in place to reduce mixing of people in the community, such as “school closures, workplace closures, working from home and cancelling mass gatherings”
Professor MacIntyre said if an epidemic broke out in Australia, authorities would change the strategies to reduce the transmission in Australia.
“We would focus on reducing outbreaks within the health system and managing the resources we’ve got,” she said.
“That includes good hospital infection control, using good triage and supporting and protecting our health workers and it would be vital to increase messaging to the community about general hygiene and increased handwashing.”
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