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WHO asks countries in South-East Asia region to strengthen preparedness on COVID-19

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According to Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia Region, early containment measures can help countries stop transmission

With India, Indonesia and Thailand confirming new cases of COVID-19, the World Health Organization asked countries in its South-East Asia region to strengthen preparedness for all possible scenarios and ensure early containment measures.

“Top priority of countries should be to be ready to roll out speedy response to the first case, first cluster, and the first evidence of community transmission. Early containment measures can help countries stop transmission,” said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia Region said.

Five of the 11 countries in the region have confirmed novel coronavirus cases — Thailand 43, India 28, Indonesia two and Sri Lanka and Nepal one each. The risk of the new coronavirus is very high across the world and in the WHO South-East Asia Region. More cases can be expected, Singh said while stressing on identifying them early and isolating them and following their contacts to help limit person-to-person transmission.

Singh said there are three priorities for country readiness – protecting health workers, engaging with communities and empowering them with timely and accurate information to enable them to take protective measures, especially those at highest risk; and ‘doing our best to contain epidemics in the most vulnerable countries.’ The virus can cause mild, flu-like symptoms as well as more severe disease. Patients have a range of symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Based on current data, globally 81 per cent of cases seem to have mild disease, about 14 per cent appear to progress to severe disease, and some five per cent is critical. People can protect themselves and prevent the spread of the virus by practising hand hygiene, covering their cough and sneeze, maintaining distance from others if they are sick and from those who are sick, she said.

Outlining preparedness and response measures and capacities in the WHO South-East Asia Region, Singh said WHO is assisting countries in preparedness and response planning, in coordination with other partner organisations as per updated global guidelines. All member countries have rolled out a series of measures to prevent the disease and protect their nationals. Nine of the 11 countries now have capacities to test for novel coronavirus. WHO is supporting countries with supplies for laboratories. For countries unable to test, WHO is assisting in the shipping of their samples to global referral laboratories, three of them in the region — two in Thailand and one in India, she said.

Nearly 3,00,000 pieces of personal protective equipment comprising caps, goggles, surgical masks, gloves, gowns, etc., have been supplied to member countries, and nearly 2,00,000 more pieces are being procured.

On February 28, WHO raised the risk assessment for the COVID-19 outbreak internationally from ‘high’ to ‘very high’ nearly a month after the novel coronavirus was declared a public health emergency of international concern – WHO’s the highest level alarm.

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