China reports zero domestic COVID-19 cases for 1st time. Picture: IANS
China reports zero domestic COVID-19 cases for 1st time. Picture: IANS

Doctors Without Borders at the frontline of the global fight to contain Covid-19

By Staff reporter Time of article published Mar 19, 2020

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The Covid-19 pandemic has already spread to more than 100 countries around the world. 

With 219 000 cases of coronavirus reported globally and a death toll of 8 900, countries have declared state of emergencies and put in place travel bans to curb the spread.  

Clair Mills, MSF’s medical director says there are several factors that make coronavirus particularly worrying. 

"Being a new virus, there is no acquired immunity; as many as 35 candidate vaccines are currently in the study phase, but experts agree that no widely usable vaccine will be available for at least 12 to 18 months."

"It is known that at least some of those affected can transmit the disease before developing symptoms - or even in the absence of any symptoms. In addition, a very high proportion - around 80% - of people develop very mild forms of the disease, which makes it difficult to identify and isolate cases quickly."

Mills said it is estimated today that approximately 15-20% of patients with Covid-19 require hospitalisation and 6% require intensive care for a duration of between 3 and 6 weeks. 

This pandemic is likely to lead to the disruption of basic medical services and emergency facilities and medical staff members are exposed to infection. 

Between mid-January and mid-February in China, over 2 000 health care workers were infected with the coronavirus. 

Mill emphasised the need to slow down the virus.

"Even though they cannot prevent the outbreak from spreading the measures currently being taken by many countries can slow it down by reducing the increase in cases and limiting the number of severe patients that health systems have to manage at the same time. The aim is not only to reduce the number of cases but also to spread them over time, avoiding congestion in emergency and intensive care units."

Mills said MSF's priorities vary from one context to another.

For instance, in countries where fragile or war-torn health systems are already struggling to meet the health needs of the population, it is necessary to protect healthcare personnel and limit the risks of spreading the pandemic.

She said this is done by implementing prevention programmes to prevent our hospitals and clinics from becoming places where the disease is transmitted.

"In these countries where MSF has a longstanding presence, we want to contribute to these efforts against Covid-19 while ensuring continuity of care against malaria, measles, respiratory infections, etc."

However, Mills said this "continuity" is weakened by the restrictions and travelled bans imposed by governments. 

"Despite these constraints, our strength lies in the fact that we can rely on locally recruited staff in our countries of intervention. They represent 90% of our employees in the field."

"In countries where health systems are more robust but where the epidemic is particularly active, such as Italy or Iran, the main challenge is to avoid overloading hospital care capacities. In these contexts, we can contribute to the efforts of national medical teams by making MSF staff available to support or relieve them when needed. We can also help by sharing our experiences in triage and control procedures for infections acquired during epidemics."

"Generally speaking, this pandemic requires solidarity not only between states but at all levels, based on mutual aid, cooperation, transparency, the sharing of resources, and, in the affected areas, towards the most vulnerable populations and towards caregivers."

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