As UN health agency raises Covid-19 outbreak risk to the highest level, Nepal scrambles to step up measuresHealth ministry preparing to equip airport health desk with more human resources and thermal cameras.
The Ministry of Health and Population said it is working to put in place measures to ensure that all international air passengers, who come to Nepal via international flights, are thoroughly screened.
The health ministry move follows warnings of a growing risk of Covid-19 outbreak as people from most of the countries affected by the disease are entering Nepal without getting screened.
The disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus, also dubbed SARS-Cov-2, has so far killed 2,933 and infected 85,6 82 people worldwide.
"For the safety of our people, we must screen all international air passengers," Dr Bikas Devkota, spokesperson for the Health Ministry, told the Post. "We are working to send additional staff at the airport health desk and equip more thermal cameras and laser thermometers at the airport."
Devkota, along with Health Secretary Khagaraj Baral and Dr Dipendra Raman Singh, chief of Policy, Planning and Monitoring Division under the Health Ministry, on Saturday visited the health desk and directed health workers to be prepared for screening all the passengers.
Devkota said that health experts have also suggested flight restrictions from the disease-hit countries and cities.
“But it is up to the government to decide,” he told the Post.
The ministry has currently deployed 13 health workers for screening at the airport health desk.
“They are working in three shifts,” said Dr Nishant Thakur, chief of the airport health desk. “We need at least 10 health workers in each shift. We have requested for additional human resources if we are to screen all the international passengers.”
Over 9,000 passengers enter Nepal via the country’s only international airport every day, according to the airport authority.
Health workers are currently screening passengers coming from China, Hong Kong, Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan and Saudi Arabia.
According to Thakur, screening of the passengers arriving from Iran and Italy, where the Covid-19 cases have rapidly surged, is just impossible with the existing staff at the airport health desk.
“If more health workers cannot be provided, the government should consider deploying police personnel, as anyone can do temperature screening.”
According to Thakur, if someone is detected with a high temperature, doctors deployed at the health desk will further examine them.
Officials said the authorities are also not providing passenger locator forms, which the World Health Organization has recommended.
The airport health desk only keeps a record of those who have a fever or influenza-like symptoms.
"We do not know where the passengers are going and whom they are meeting,” said Thakur.
The disease so far has spread to 53 countries. With experts saying there is little chance of the virus spread abating any time soon, Nepalis are increasingly concerned over the government’s lackadaisical approach. Many are taking to social media to remind—and ask—the government agencies to take immediate measures to control the spread of the deadly disease.
Health experts last week told the Post that the question is not “if” the virus comes to Nepal but “when”.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health Services said that it has formed seven separate teams led by senior officials, who will be deployed in all seven provinces.
"They will hold a meeting with the chief minister, concerned ministers and health officials and sensitise them about the seriousness of the risk," Mahendra Prasad Shrestha, director general at the department, told the Post. "They will also monitor the health desks at land crossings and ask the concerned officials to start preparing for a possible outbreak."
The department has also directed all hotels and travel agencies to keep detailed records of tourists and inform the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division if someone is found to have a fever or influenza-like symptoms.
Meanwhile, technicians from the National Public Health Laboratory under the Department of Health Services on Saturday collected specimens— nasal and throat swab–from all 192 Nepalis. The government two weeks ago had sent a Nepal Airlines plane to Wuhan, the epicentre of the new virus, with 17 crew members to evacuate 175 Nepalis.
The evacuees are being quarantined at the Nepal Electricity Authority training centre in Kharipati, Bhaktapur. The crew members are in quarantine at the Nepal Drinking Water Corporation’s training centre.
"It will take at least three days to get the results," Dr Runa Jha, director at the laboratory, told the Post. "They will be cleared to go home only if they test negative.”
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of April 8, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. As of Wednesday, Covid-19 had spread to 209 countries and infected more than 1,431,706 people with 82,080 deaths. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 5,351 with 160 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 4,035 confirmed cases with 57 deaths. Nepal has so far reported nine cases, in which one patient recovered.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.