Photo/IllutrationHealth Officials in hazmat suits check body temperatures of passengers arriving from the city of Wuhan on Jan. 22. (AP Photo)

The “chunjie” (spring festival) holidays, or Lunar New Year, when vast numbers of Chinese travel to domestic and overseas destinations, are in full swing amid deepening fears about the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus. China’s busiest travel season poses colossal challenges for policymakers and medical personnel battling to contain the outbreak.

Despite growing concerns about the rapid spread of the virus, which first emerged in Wuhan, China, and is known to trigger symptoms similar to pneumonia, the World Health Organization has decided it is “still too early to declare a public health emergency of international concern.”

The WHO’s decision is based on a range of factors, including the fact that no case of human-to-human transmission has been confirmed outside China.

But the WHO nevertheless warned that the situation is serious and urgent, adding there is no way of telling if the outbreak has peaked. The organization has called for vigilance and information-sharing.

It is vital to get accurate information about the virus and how it spreads. Cool-headed and appropriate responses based on reliable information should be made under the WHO’s leadership.

The first step to prevent the virus from spreading further is to screen travelers arriving from Wuhan and other affected regions. Travelers displaying suspicious symptoms like fever and coughing must receive medical examinations immediately.

If a traveler’s infection is confirmed, health authorities will need to track down those who had been in contact with the patient, such as other family members and colleagues at the workplace.

But given the disease’s incubation period and the existence of many cases of mild symptoms, there is a limit to the effectiveness of such efforts at airports.

It is crucial that medical institutions take swift and effective actions to deal with suspected cases so no one falls through the cracks and starts displaying symptoms after arriving in Japan.

This requires setting up systems nationwide to quickly examine suspected cases.

Everybody must take it upon themselves to avoid getting infected to help prevent the outbreak from spreading.

This is also the flu season. Daily precautionary measures involve things like washing hands frequently. When we visit a medical institution for the treatment of suspicious conditions that have appeared after an overseas trip, we need to remember to inform the staff of the fact. Our actions should be based on fundamental principles for responses to such a virus outbreak.

The virus that is currently spreading is a new strain of coronavirus. Other varieties of coronavirus in past major outbreaks resulted in severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS.

The SARS outbreak, which started in China’s Guangdong Province in 2002, sickened around 8,000 people in more than 30 countries, and raged for half a year until it was finally contained.

A key factor in the spread of the SARS virus was the Chinese government’s initial attempt to conceal the existence of the deadly infectious disease, which caused serious delays in initial responses.

This time, the number of patients began to soar in mid-January when it was then revealed that medical workers who had treated patients had contracted the virus.

It remains unclear whether Chinese authorities have been entirely open in disclosing information about the latest outbreak.

It seems the ratio of severe cases is lower than those for SARS and MERS. A worrisome possibility is that the virus may spread among medical experts and healthcare workers. Infections through medical institutions occurred during both the SARS and MERS outbreaks, offering important lessons.

The same mistake must not be repeated. This can be achieved by requiring confirmed and suspected patients to wear special masks and proper hand washing after treating a patient while disinfecting the equipment used.

China has placed Wuhan under lockdown and imposed indefinite travel restrictions on citizens. After the situation calms down, it will be important to assess the effectiveness and consequences of these measures to learn lessons for the future.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 25