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18 Feb 2020 11:52
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  •   Home > News > International

    What are authorities doing to protect Australians from the spread of coronavirus?

    Australia has a number of measures to help stop the spread of coronavirus — but what can you do to protect yourself from the virus?

    Australia has recorded its first cases of the deadly new coronavirus strain.

    Australia has a number of measures to help stop the spread of coronavirus, but what exactly are the procedures being enacted, and what can you do to protect yourself from the virus?

    What can authorities do to stop the spread?

    All states in Australia have the power to place people in lockdown to prevent communicable diseases from spreading.

    Australia's chief medical officer Brendan Murphy says that every one of Australia's state public health departments has a designated isolation facility and "clearly established protocols to get people to those facilities."

    NSW Health director of health protection Jeremy McAnulty confirmed NSW Health had the power to quarantine individuals who refused to cooperate with health officials.

    "Almost always we don't need to do that because people are very sensible and cooperative, but we do have powers, if need be, under the Public Health Act to control the spread of diseases," he said.

    Health workers in NSW public hospitals, as well as community-based GPs, have been issued precautionary advice to help them identify cases of the infection and apply infection-control measures.

    Coronavirus has been made a 'notifiable disease' under the Public Health Act, meaning doctors and laboratories are required to report any suspected cases to NSW Health.

    What can I do to protect myself?

    Everything you'd normally do to protect yourself during a regular cold and flu season, including washing your hands vigorously and avoiding close contact with anyone with cold and flu symptoms.

    If you have recently been to Wuhan, or have been in contact with someone who has, and develop flu-like symptoms, you should seek medical attention.

    Typically, symptoms include an elevated temperature, fever, a sore throat, coughing or breathlessness.

    If you develop these symptoms, see a GP urgently. But call ahead to let them know, so they can take measures to protect other patients.

    NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said anyone who came forward with symptoms would have their privacy respected.

    "They should also call ahead to speak to their GP or emergency department," he said.

    "If the GP considers novel coronavirus testing is needed they will be referred to the emergency department for testing."

    How prepared is Australia to stop the spread?

    Professor Murphy has said Australia was well prepared to respond to the virus.

    "We currently have over 10 million [face] masks, even though we distributed 3.5 million during the bushfires, so we've got a good stockpile," he said.

    "We keep all sorts of things, particularly drugs, EpiPens, thermometers, so if there is a very large emergency of a public health significance that overwhelms the suppliers in state and territory health services we can activate that stockpile and get stuff out."

    He said the testing of suspected cases was being sped up. Currently it is taking one or two days to get a confirmed test.

    "We're getting much more rapid tests on hand," Professor Murphy said.

    Professor Murphy said updated information would be distributed to GPs and emergency departments across the country following reports a doctor failed to flag a possible infection in Victoria.

    "That was one of the reasons prompting me to send [the message out again]," Professor Murphy said.

    "We have previously provided information but we are trying to reinforce it."

    Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declared that the Federal Government is taking the issue "incredibly seriously".

    "I want to assure Australians our officials, our medical experts, clinicians, our border security officials and agencies, our biosecurity professionals, are working closely together at a Commonwealth and state level," he said.

    "I'd urge Australians to go about their day, to go about their business, with the knowledge that professionals and experts, that are there to provide the support that is needed in times like this, are on the job."

    What does the World Health Organisation say?

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) has the power to declare virus outbreaks a "public health emergency of international concern" (PHEIC).

    An outbreak can only be a PHEIC if it poses a risk to more than one country, and if it requires a coordinated international response to control.

    Past PHEICs include the outbreaks of SARS, bird flu, and the Ebola and Zika outbreaks.

    On Thursday, an emergency WHO committee met to decide whether to designate coronavirus as a PHEIC, but WHO officials decided to defer the decision.

    "This an evolving and complex situation," Director-general of the WHO Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

    "The decision about whether or not to declare a public health emergency of international concern is one I take extremely seriously, and one I am only prepared to make with appropriate consideration of all the evidence.

    "Today there was an excellent discussion but it was also clear that to proceed we need more information."

    How does it compare to past outbreaks?

    The virus belongs to the same family of coronaviruses as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people globally during a 2002-03 outbreak that also started in China.

    Its symptoms include fever and difficulty in breathing, which are similar to many other respiratory diseases and pose complications for screening efforts.

    However, medical experts have said coronavirus may not be as aggressive as SARS.

    A vaccine for the virus is yet to be developed.

    What about the financial impacts of the outbreak?

    During the 2002 SARS outbreak, consumer confidence was whacked across the Asia region, leading to reduced consumption, demand and investment.

    A study by Australian economist Warwick McKibbin estimated the cost of SARS at $40 billion.

    From an economic perspective, the current outbreak couldn't come at a worse time.

    Global growth is tepid, with the International Monetary Fund this week again lowering forecasts, with central banks preparing to cut interest rates to record lows.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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