Staff writers,February 2, 2020 2:15PM


HEALTH

Reading level: Orange

The World Health Organisation has declared the coronavirus* outbreak* a global emergency.

The move came as Australia ordered a travel ban on foreigners* flying here from mainland China and prepared to fly home hundreds of Australians trapped in Wuhan, which is the epicentre* of the virus*. 

The virus has spread from China to 25 countries, with the number of confirmed cases spiking tenfold* last week.

The UN health agency defines an international emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes* a risk to other countries and requires a co-ordinated international response.

“The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday.

“Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it,” he said. 

China first informed WHO about cases of the new virus in late December.

A man uses a thermographic camera to identify people who may have a fever, which could indicate they are ill with coronavirus, at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata, India on January 21, 2020. Picture: AFP/Ministry of Civil Aviation

To date, more than 14,000 cases have been reported worldwide, 304 people have died in China and one man has died in the Philippines. Twenty-five other countries have reported confirmed infections, as scientists race to understand exactly how the virus is spreading and how severe it is.

There are 12 confirmed cases in Australia, but all patients are in stable conditions in various hospitals. 

The new virus, called 2019-nCoV, causes cold and pneumonia-like symptoms* and had never previously been seen in humans.

Governments around the world — including in Australia — plan for situations like this and are working on controlling its spread.

New SARS-like virus spreading in Asia

Passengers wear protective masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus as they arrive at Los Angeles International Airport, US, on January 22, 2020. Picture: AFP

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy said the risk to most Australians was generally low.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the two-week travel ban to Australia was imposed to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.

“I want to assure Australians that we are doing everything that we can and through these actions to protect Australia from what is an escalating* threat and a constantly changing situation,” Mr Morrison said. 

About 300 Australians trapped in the Chinese city of Wuhan, including about 140 children, are due to be flown home today (Monday) and will spend a two-week quarantine* period in a disused detention* facility on Christmas Island.  

Australian Emma Wei and her children are visiting China and are unable to travel due to restrictions in China aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Chinese health official Gao Fu said the coronavirus was more contagious than the SARS coronavirus outbreak of 2003 because the new virus can infect others during an ill person’s 14-day incubation* period, before they show symptoms.

Although many people who catch this coronavirus will only feel like they have a regular cold, it is dangerous to people whose immune system* is already weak because, for instance, they have a different illness at the same time or are old and frail.

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FAST FACTS

  • Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses named after the Latin word corona for crown, because that’s what they look like under a powerful microscope.
  • The common cold is also a type of coronavirus.
  • Australia’s Department of Health advises symptoms of 2019-nCoV may include fever, flu-like symptoms such as coughing, sore throat and headaches, and difficulty breathing.
  • For those with a weakened immune system there’s a chance the virus could cause a lower, and much more serious, respiratory tract illness such as pneumonia or bronchitis.
  • Because it is a new virus, there is no vaccine* to prevent a person catching it or medicine to treat it.
  • The only way to stop it spreading is to stop close contact with people who have the virus.
  • Scientists don’t yet know for sure how humans first got this new coronavirus, but as coronaviruses are common in animals, one theory is that it spread from an animal to a human.
Concern In China As Mystery Virus Spreads

A woman wears a protective mask as she stands with decorations marking the Chinese New Year holiday in Beijing, China on January 26, 2020. The celebrations at this location were cancelled to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Picture: Getty Images

GLOSSARY

  • coronavirus: a group of a particular type of viruses
  • outbreak: a sudden occurrence, such as of war or disease
  • foreigners: people who live overseas. 
  • epicentre: central point of something, especially something unpleasant or a problem
  • virus: microscopic infective agent that can cause illness
  • tenfold: 10 times the number
  • symptoms: physical or mental signs that someone has an injury or disease
  • escalating: rising
  • quarantine: keep separate to avoid spreading a disease
  • detention: prevention of someone leaving somewhere. 
  • incubation: developing an infection from time of contact to when symptoms appear
  • immune system: organs and processes in the body that provide protection against infection and disease
  • vaccine: a substance that helps the immune system get to work developing protection against a disease