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Is Cambodia ready to prevent a coronavirus outbreak?

As the new strain of coronavirus spreads throughout the world, countries are reporting cases of it reaching their borders, stoking fears of a global pandemic. The growing number of coronavirus cases have led governments to adopt severe measures to respond to the current outbreak.

Without any vaccine or treatment for the 2019-nCoV, complacency isn't an option. Both governments and citizens have a role to play to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

As the coronavirus continues to spread and the death count increases, the question remains is Cambodia ready? As of Tuesday, the Ministry of Health announced the first case of the virus in Cambodia from a Chinese tourist from Wuhan city visiting Sihanoukville. It is likely more cases will be diagnosed within the coming days and weeks, and as such, we must remain proactive in prevention, mitigation, and treatment.

With origins from Wuhan, Hubei, the number of deaths from the virus has amounted to more than 100, with more than 4,500 individuals contracting the virus, according to the Wall Street Journal. Cases of the virus have been confirmed in at least 13 countries, including Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Nepal, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, France and the US.

The Chinese government has responded by closing off entire cities including Wuhan, restricted travel within the country, cancelled large-scale public gatherings, and in some places like Guangdong have required people to wear masks in public. Identifying the virus can be difficult.

Symptoms of the virus are similar to those of the flu, which include fever, cough, or shortness of breath. Furthermore, the incubation of the coronavirus ranges between 10 to 14 days, making it difficult to diagnose those with the virus.

Chinese health officials have warned that healthy individuals could be carriers of the virus. The World Health Organisation (WHO) emphasised that "not enough is known about the epidemiology of 2019-nCoV to draw definitive conclusions about the full clinical features of the disease, the intensity of the human-to-human transmission, and the original source of the outbreak.

Nevertheless, the WHO has encouraged the public to practice hand and respiratory hygiene and safe food practices. It is still unclear how the virus spreads between people.

Lessons from Sars, ebola The Cambodian response has been appropriate. Thermal scanners have been installed at all the international airports in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Preah Sihanouk provinces, including the border checkpoints in Svay Rieng, Banteay Meanchey and Kampot provinces.

Isolation rooms have also been prepared in the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh, and provincial hospitals in Preah Sihanouk and Siem Reap to treat those diagnosed with the virus. A special 24-hour emergency hotline (115) has also been established.

Despite these measures being taken, more needs to be done to minimise the virus spreading. Fortunately, there are lessons Cambodia can adopt from both the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Ebola experiences.

With the rapidly evolving situation, transparency is essential to preventing the spreading of the virus. To date, the Ministry of Health has been very proactive in updating the public on how the ministry is handling the situation.

However, more needs to be done to reinforce how the public can practice every day preventative measures to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, such as washing hands often with soap for 20 seconds, avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, avoid contact with those who are sick, and covering cough or sneeze with a tissue. Although Facebook users have been active in sharing this information, it has often been inconsistent, incomplete and, at times, fake.

The Ministry of Health should be directly responsible for relaying all relevant information to the public through a variety of mediums to ensure everyone in the country is well-informed on the prevention and treatment of the virus. Various posts on Facebook have encouraged the public to purchase masks as a preventative measure with the N-95 mask being more effective than surgical masks.

Health professionals have argued that the surgical masks block large particles, but do little given small particles can still enter through the sides. In comparison, the N-95 mask is tighter fitting and can prevent 95 per cent of small particles from entering.

Both these masks have been in high demand, with the N-95 mask being almost impossible to obtain even within the capital of Phnom Penh. The demand has in some places led to sharp price increases.

The debate continues as to whether the masks work or not. Still operating in the unknown, we should take as many precautions as possible.

The government should ensure that both masks are readily accessible, with price increases being prohibited. Moreover, the Ministry of Health should ensure the public is using and disposing of the masks properly, reinforcing the point that they should only be used once.

Public health officials at all levels in both public and private institutions should be prepared and well-equipped. Despite three hospitals being designated, those with symptoms will likely visit their local public healthcare provider.

As such, appropriate communication and training should be provided by the ministry. Cooperation and coordination will be essential.

We still don't know how bad this can get. But, we must be prepared and do what we can now.

Darren Touch is a Schwarzman Scholar pursuing a Master's in Global Affairs at Tsinghua University. He recently graduated with a Master's in Public Policy and Global Affairs from the University of British Columbia.

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Publication:The Phnom Penh Post (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)
Geographic Code:9CAMB
Date:Jan 29, 2020
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