Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that have a halo, or crown-like (corona) appearance when viewed under an electron microscope. Photo: CDC | Dr Fred Murphy

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the new coronavirus outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”, as infections continue to spread outside China. Is Sudan prepared to deal with the crisis?

The second meeting of the Emergency Committee convened by the WHO Director-General regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus 2019 (officially called 2019-nCoV) in the People’s Republic of China, with exportations to other countries on Thursday, January 30, concluded that the 2019-nCoV outbreak constitutes a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”.

As of January 31, at least 213 people have died from the virus in China, mostly in Hubei, with almost 10,000 cases nationally. The WHO said there had been 98 cases in 18 other countries, but no deaths. About 100,000 people could be infected with the new coronavirus around the world, experts have warned. It is expected that further international exportation of cases may appear in any country.

A “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” serves as notice that the world’s top health advisory body rates the situation as serious.

Thus, all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of the onward spread of 2019-nCoVinfection, and to share full data with WHO. The WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the concern is that the virus could spread to countries with weaker health systems.

Is Sudan prepared?

One such country is Sudan, confronted by political, security and socio-economic challenges affecting the Sudanese healthcare system. Therefore, the virus poses a significant threat to the Sudanese people, and according to the Sudanese Health Minister, Dr Akram Eltom, two people suspected of carrying the virus had already entered the country.

On Wednesday, January 29, the Sudanese Ministry of Health announced that two people who came from China on different flights through Cairo and Addis are suspected of carrying the coronavirus infection. Ministry personnel carried out medical examinations and sent samples abroad for further testing to confirm if the two are infected with the human coronaviruses.

Already on Saturday, January 25, the head of the Emergency and Epidemics Department in the Federal Minister of Health, Babiker al-Magboul, announced that Sudan has started to plan for emergency measures to protect citizens from the rapidly spreading virus.

Al-Magboul said that officials from the ministry met with Khartoum’s Airport Authority and companies providing services at the airport to implement monitoring of all arriving passengers. He also said that the ministry is in touch with the WHO to follow up with the global developments and coordinate national measures taken.

“All the border crossings and ports are equipped with heat-detecting cameras.”

Abdulmajid Murdas

The Emergency and Epidemics Department’s Abdulmajid Murdas told AlAdwaa.Online that the department implemented precautions on the national level and formed a technical committee to prepare for combatting the spread of the virus in Sudan. “Measures taken include preparing two quarantine stations, one in Khartoum’s airport and one in the Khartoum Teaching Hospital, and checking all passengers coming from China”.

“All the border crossings and ports are equipped with heat-detecting cameras, quarantine rooms, ambulances, medicines in addition to trained medical staff. We also launched awareness-raising campaigns through media,” Murdas said.

Some worries remain

“Sudanese authorities declared their readiness to handle the threat, and their way of dealing with the two suspected cases reflects the government’s ability to protect the citizens,” said Mohamed Elmokhtar from Omdurman. However, he added, “I am worried not only for myself but for the Chinese people as well”.

Elmokhtar said his worry streams from the state of Sudan’s health care system, following years of neglect and the current transitional period. “Sudan needs support from the WHO and the global community to fight the virus, whether it’s financial or technical. I think it’s the new government’s chance to develop early warning systems and response methods for both the current and future threats.”

“I am worried not only for myself but for the Chinese people as well.”

Mohamed Elmokhtar

Another issue Elmokhtar raised is that Sudan is still behind in terms of technical abilities, pointing out that the samples of the two suspected cases had to be sent abroad for testing, which reflects the need to have proper laboratories in the country, and that needs commitment from the authorities and help from outside.

Murdas said that regarding healthcare and health emergency preparedness not much has changed since the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime. The procedures and protocols that are in place for handling such issues are still the same, he added. However, “now there’s more transparency in the way of doing things”, he said.

As countries around the world race to improve their emergency preparedness and scientists to develop a vaccine, this transparency is crucial: fighting the spread of the coronavirus globally requires multi-sectoral communication, collaboration and active participation of all countries, according to the WHO.