15 Jan 2020

Health ministry alerts hospitals to new deadly virus in China

5:17 pm on 15 January 2020

The Ministry of Health has warned health professionals about an outbreak of a deadly new virus in China, which is causing symptoms from fever to severe lung disease.

A woman walks in front of the closed Huanan wholesale seafood market, where health authorities say a man who died from a respiratory illness had purchased goods from, in the city of Wuhan.

A woman walks in front of the closed Huanan wholesale seafood market, where health authorities say a man who died from a respiratory illness had purchased goods from, in the city of Wuhan. Photo: AFP or licensors

But a health expert says people travelling to China shouldn't be too concerned yet, as the virus is mostly contained to the city of Wuhan, with no evidence it spreads between people.

In Wuhan, 41 people have been diagnosed with novel coronavirus, which likely came from animals.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said six of them were severely ill, one with underlying health problems has died and one has travelled to Thailand after picking up the virus, where they've been quarantined.

It was found after an investigation into the cause of about 60 mysterious pneumonia cases in Wuhan in December and has been traced back to a single seafood market.

Otago University public health professor Michael Baker said the virus certainly appeared to be severe and it came after the SARS coronavirus pandemic of 2002 which killed 774 people.

But he said that was highly infectious, which this virus didn't appear to be, so people with plane tickets to China shouldn't be too worried.

"Since the source is confined to one city in China, then if you're going to Wuhan it would be a thing to think about, but I think it would just be a matter of keeping up to date with developments from the World Health Organisation and also the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention," he said.

WHO said the evidence points to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market as a possible source of the virus because most people became infected after working there or frequently visiting it.

That market was closed on 1 January and China's National Health Commission has deployed a group of experts to Wuhan City to support the local response.

Baker said WHO would be watching closely for any sign of person-to-person transmission, in which case it would consider large scale control measures.

In a national advisory to health professionals last week, the Ministry of Health said it was also monitoring the situation.

It said it wasn't recommending any specific measures for travellers beyond the regular advice given to people arriving in the country - urging them to seek medical advice if they get sick within a month of their arrival.

University of Otago biochemistry professor Kurt Krause said it was important to note that coronaviruses were not uncommon.

However, he said there was a lot more work to be done to find out who was susceptible, how it's transmitted - and with what incubation period and severity, as well as control measures and ways to find possible animal reservoirs of infection.

"It is an important story that deserves a close watch over the next weeks and months," he said.

He said one concerning feature was the close genetic relationship of the novel virus to the deadly SARS variant.

That meant New Zealand authorities should still be on the lookout.

"I think we want to certainly be careful about people who have travelled, who have visited that market, following contacts - I understand [the WHO] is following about 700 people who have had contact with the people who have had infections - do they have any symptoms," he said.

In a statement, the Ministry of Health's Director of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay said the ministry has been in frequent communication with the health sector to give advice, since becoming aware of novel coronavirus.

"The Ministry continues to monitor the situation. We will update our advice as further information becomes available," she said.

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