Preparing for the next outbreak

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Smart city technology has the potential to save Hong Kong from the complications of a future pandemic.

Photo: Latest Situation of Novel Coronavirus Infection in Hong Kong interactive map dashboard, showing details such as live updates of the number of confirmed cases.

The number of newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 (previously called Novel Coronavirus or Wuhan pneumonia) worldwide surged to 15,200 on 12 February, and since then the rate of new cases, especially outside China, appears to be decelerating.

Data collection, analysis, presentation, and dissemination is playing much of an important role this time compared to past epidemics. Held up against SARS and similar events in the past, the transparency of information is much higher this time. It is because many governments and international organisations use the latest information technology, like interactive map dashboards, for sharing the latest information on the outbreak with the public. The one developed by the World Health Organization, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and John Hopkins University of the United States respectively are just a few examples.

Hong Kong Government also introduced its “Novel Coronavirus Infection in Hong Kong” early this month using maps, icons, and charts to reflect the status in real time for the public to grasp the changing situation at a glance.

However, this new type of virus is still quite mysterious. At present, researchers around the world are working feverishly to solve the mystery of its origin and how the virus transmits. Science journal Nature found that more than 50 English research papers have been published or were due to be published in 20 days in late January. On the Chinese website for the China National Knowledge Infrastructure there is an “Initial Release Platform for Special Topic Research” on COVID-19 which has listed over 70 new research papers presented from January 2020 – the volume of papers is astonishing! Among the papers, the most popular topic concerns information on how the virus spreads.

The kids are alright

At present, there are many theories about this virus transmission. For example, it is pointed out that the disease is dangerous because some carriers have no obvious symptoms, and carriers who seem to not have been infected can unknowingly spread the virus. A report released by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) early February stated that patients were predominantly 49 to 56 years old, and that cases of children were very rare.

For example, the medical journal Lancet published a study by the University of Hong Kong at the end of last month. It reported that among family of six who visited Wuhan at the end of December last year and returned to Shenzhen, five of them, aged 36 to 66, developed the symptoms. Only the 10-year-old child was not infected.

A similar situation was observed with SARS in 2003. Of the more than 700 deaths worldwide at the time, none of the deceased were children under the age of 12. The New York Times pointed out that this might be similar to chickenpox. Children’s chicken pox symptoms are usually mild. But for a healthy adult, the illness can be very serious once infected and there may even be a danger of causing meningitis or death. Whether this is the case with COVID-19 remains to be verified.

A report in JAMA also estimated that ten percent of the patients with COVID-19 only show less common symptoms like headache, diarrhea, and vomiting, without the most common symptoms, such as fever and coughing. It can easily mislead medical staff. Researchers pointed out that the current available information is not enough for more accurate analysis.

The Gates abides

It cannot be denied that we have neglected the lethality of infectious diseases. Recently, people were awakened by revisiting a public speech delivered by Bill Gates five years ago.

Gates had warned at that time that the world’s biggest disaster would not be nuclear war, but infection by highly contagious virus, which killed 30 million people in 1918. In recent years, the Ebola virus killed more than 10,000. He said that even though Ebola was highly lethal, it does not spread through the air. With sheer luck, the outbreak did not take place in urban areas so it had not spread globally.

He also quoted the World Bank’s estimation: A global influenza epidemic would not only bring heavy casualties, but also cost global wealth over US$3 trillion, so there is a need to establish a “good response system” to prepare for the next global outbreak.

It is important to increase the transparency of information to the public for taking precautions in the early stage, as well as increase training of medical personnel and to conduct simulation exercises. While it is equally important to make good use of and even share big data to control and predict the propagation of the illness, using mobile phone signalling data with location information is one of the key suggestions.

The better our ability to predict epidemics, the more resilient our society will be. Therefore, we should accumulate the practical analysis experience on the development and evolution of this epidemic, which will certainly be of great benefit to the analysis of big data for healthcare in the future.

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