Chief Medical Officer warns of 'increasing chance' of coronavirus pandemic
Australia's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald there was "a strong possibility of a pandemic" which had "increased in recent days".
Professor Murphy advised against wearing facemasks, because the virus is not circulating in the community, but said people should focus on washing their hands often.
People with chronic illnesses should consider stocking up on a supply of essential medications, other experts warned.
Professor Murphy said Australia did not want to "rule out anything" in dealing with the crisis, including a potential travel ban on South Korea but noted Seoul had "very strong measures in place to isolate the centre of that outbreak".
On Monday Australia raised its travel advice for South Korea and Japan, urging travellers to "exercise a high degree of caution".
There is still no sign the virus is spreading in Australia.
"In the beginning, there was an expectation containment would work," said Professor Ian Mackey, an infection expert at the University of Queensland.
But it is now clear the virus, unlike earlier respiratory disease outbreaks SARS and MERS, can readily spread through coughing and sneezing.
"This is a proper respiratory virus, with all the bells and whistles," Professor Mackey said. On average every infected person infects between two and four others.
Should the virus break out in Australia, efforts to stop it "might mean closing schools, stopping [football] games, all manner of impacts that will change our way of life for some time - should things get that far," he said.
The World Health Organisation has yet to declare COVID-19 a pandemic - a disease that spreads across the globe - but the outbreaks in Italy, South Korea and Iran suggest moves to contain the highly infectious disease using travel bans have not worked.
The coronavirus epidemic has infected almost 80,000 people and killed more than 2600.
A sudden eruption of cases in Italy - from five to more than 150 by Sunday - forced authorities there to lock down 10 towns, close schools and cancel sporting events.
In South Korea, the government issued a "red alert" after cases rose to more than 760.
Is it a pandemic?
Japan is fighting more than 800 cases, and eight people are dead from the virus in Iran.
These outbreaks suggest the virus is spreading undetected, probably by people who are infected but not showing symptoms.
Professor Lyn Gilbert, senior researcher at the University of Sydney's Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Disease and Biosecurity, said the virus would spread throughout Australia "sooner or later".
"There's no reason to think it will spread like wildfire through the community or cause chaos." she said.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said Australia was well prepared for any increase in cases.
Victoria's Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, took to social media on Sunday to say a "pandemic is very likely, if not inevitable". The state has declared a Class Two Public Health Emergency - but for now is in containment mode.
Meanwhile, hospitals across Australia are starting to prepare for the surge in patients a pandemic would cause.
"Everyone is looking at those figures [from overseas] with alarm," said Professor Allen Cheng, director of the infection prevention unit at Alfred Health.
He said Australia's hospitals were looking at the healthcare response in Japan and South Korea to see how they were coping.
"In Japan, it's been a little bit stretched," he said. "They've had to distribute cases out to different Japanese hospitals. That's what we'd be doing as well."
Australia's aged-care system appears to face the biggest threat.
Coronavirus poses a very small risk to healthy people aged under 60.
"They will have an unremarkable illness comparable to a common cold," Professor McMillan said.
But the virus' mortality rate rises sharply for those over 60, and for those with heart disease, diabetes or lung disease.
The best thing people could do right now was practice avoiding touching their hands to their mouths to cut the, said Professor Ben Cowie, an epidemiologist working for the World Health Organisation in Melbourne.
"The utility of wearing a facemask is open to question. But what people can do, no question, is not touch their face and be better with their hand hygiene.
"People with chronic illnesses can think about stocking up on their medication now. There is certainly no need for people to go out and buy stockpiles of food."
Professor Peter Doherty, a Melbourne-based virus expert and Nobel Laureate, wrote a book about pandemics in 2013. He is now working on an update.
"We have to continue to try our best," he said.
"The longer we can delay or contain any major incursion, the closer we will be to a protective vaccine."
"Keeping it out, though, is a big ask."With Sherryn Groch and Eryk Bagshaw
Liam is The Age and Sydney Morning Herald's science reporter
Rachel Clun is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Kate Aubusson is Health Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.
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