Screening at airports is an ineffective method of preventing the spread of coronavirus, with symptoms taking days to come into effect, according to an Auckland doctor who's an expert on infectious diseases.
The viral illness has so far killed at least 18 people and infected more than 600 others - largely in mainland China - but the virus has spread to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and the United States.
The World Health Organisation has been monitoring the coronavirus situation but this morning stopped short of declaring a global health emergency.
Dr Mark Thomas from Auckland Hospital told TVNZ 1's Breakfast that coronavirus is “a term for a whole family of viruses” and “is commonly what normally causes colds in people, minor illnesses.”
“But coronaviruses also affect a range of different birds and mammals, from mice, rats, through to whales and all sorts of different birds,” Dr Thomas explained.
He went on to say: “When viruses that previously have caused disease openly in one animal species then crosses over into humans, then they can cause severe disease in humans because we’re not used to them.”
Mr Thomas said it can be difficult to differentiate between coronavirus and the flu, especially during the winter, because they “both cause respiratory illness, and particularly pneumonia, to make people severely unwell.”
“This coronavirus seems to cause pneumonia, and severe pneumonia, much more commonly in people who are infected than influenza does.”
The majority of the people falling ill have been the elderly, according to reports. The youngest person to have died from the illness was 48, while the oldest was 89.
“I think what happens is a range of people get infected, but the people who’ve got underlying respiratory disease or cardiac disease or problems with their immune system are more likely to then progress to death from the disease than people who are fit and well.”
Mr Thomas said, however, that screening at airports will be “difficult to have an impact” as it may take days before someone becomes unwell.
“It’s an illness that has about seven days, on average, from becoming infected to becoming unwell.”
Ministry of Health director of public health, Dr Caroline McElnay, agreed, adding, “That’s the reason why screening at airports is generally not recommended as an effective thing to do."
Dr McElnay told Breakfast that countries with reported cases of the illness were not being picked up through screening at the airport.
“They developed symptoms a few days later, so if we focus all of our effort on picking people up as they come across the border, really, you’re going to miss cases. The other side is that you pick up all sorts of other illnesses that equal in temperature.”
Dr Thomas advised people that people from countries affected by coronavirus who become unwell should see a doctor immediately, and advise them that they have come from an affected area so they may be cared for in isolation and tested for the illness.
“We’re likely to have the testing available in New Zealand, by New Zealand laboratories, in a matter of days, but in the meantime, samples can be sent to laboratories in Australia and test it there.”
Dr McElnay confirmed that testing will be available in New Zealand by next week.
“It’s that confirmation that we need, because this virus presents many other flu-like illnesses that can be very difficult to make a diagnosis, and it probably wouldn’t be a coronavirus," Dr McElnay said.
“We need to be able to test in order to rule that out, and we would put people in isolation until we have that testing, so having a quick turnaround for results is really important."