In recent weeks, the new coronavirus has increased its spread to around 16 countries but is mainly affecting all regions in mainland China.

There have so far been 170 deaths, 6,000 known cases of infection and it is a dynamic situation.

The World Health Organisation this evening declared the outbreak a global public health emergency.

It is important that there be no panic. There has been no case in Ireland or in the UK.

Here, there are major roles for the Health Service Executive and its National Crisis Management Team, the separate multi-agency National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) and other State agencies.

NPHET met initially last week and was likely to meet again today to review matters.

While the coronavirus is new, the HSE has experience of these issues, both with influenza each year and also the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) experience in 2002-2003.

SARS killed around 800 people globally and originated in China. In Ireland, there was one case of SARS and no deaths.

According to the British Medical Journal, scientists at the University of Hong Kong have estimated that the likely extent of infections in the city of Wuhan is close to 44,000, based on the number of confirmed cases as of 25 January and what is known about the virus's transmissibility.

The coronavirus is in the family of flu viruses. There is as yet no specific antiviral treatment or vaccine.


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The scale of its spread has now exceeded what happened with SARS, but notably so far the number of deaths is lower.

The fatality rate with SARS was about 10% but with the coronavirus it is about 2.5%.

Experts say it is too early to be reassured at the lower death numbers.

While the number of cases and deaths is expected to rise over the coming weeks, the hope is that the measures taken on travel restrictions and quarantine will result in a plateau in cases soon.

With SARS, the virus was infectious when patients displayed symptoms, but with the coronavirus it can be transmitted during the incubation period of up to 14 days.

The key symptoms are high temperature, cough and shortness of breath.

To place someone in the category of being 'a suspicion of a suspected case', along with the symptoms, they would also need to have a travel history of having arrived back from the Wuhan area in the last 14 days or so.

Or they may have the symptoms and have been in contact with someone who has been in the region.

How has the HSE been preparing for the possible arrival of the virus here?

Information is key. There is a lot of detail people can review on the HSE website.

It has also issued detailed information to health professionals GPs, public health doctors and hospitals on what to do if they see a potential case.

Advice to the public

If a person feels sick and thinks they may be infected, the advice is to isolate themselves to reduce the risk of transmission.

For most cases, they will self-cure.

However, if their condition worsens, they are advised to contact their GP, firstly by phone. Then the health authorities can act.

While hospitals have masks, the HSE is working to ensure there are sufficient masks for health professionals, especially if there was a prolonged outbreak affecting Ireland.

The HSE takes its lead from the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention.

The executive has been in contact Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports on what is required in terms of how they deal with possible cases and notify health authorities.

These measures are not new and have been in place for some years.

Airports have well-established protocols.

Flight staff and pilots would report possible cases and ambulance services would be alerted on arrival, if deemed necessary.

Currently, the WHO is not recommending entry screening in Irish airports.

Irish authorities have advised citizens to avoid non-essential travel to China.

The EU is bringing its citizens back from Wuhan on chartered planes and any Irish people returning, will go to France for quarantine for about 14 days.

While work is under way at pace to try to develop a test and a vaccine against the coronavirus, that will take time. Any vaccine would need clinical trials, before being made available.

As of now, there has been no case of the coronavirus here. Even in the UK, which has a large movement of people from some of the affected areas, there has not been a case yet.

But authorities must prepare for the expectation that we may see some cases.

While the winter flu is still in circulation, it is important for people not to confuse it with the coronavirus.

For a sense of perspective, in a really bad year here of influenza, there can be around 800 deaths explicitly liked to the flu and other related deaths.

In an average flu season here, around 120 deaths could explicitly be linked to influenza and there may also be 300-600 other deaths related to it.

The only test of the quality of preparedness here for any cases of coronavirus, is the actual real-life event of dealing with cases.

The HSE insists it is putting in place the necessary preparations. Other agencies would also have a role in dealing with the coronavirus if it arrives here.

People can also keep themselves up to date on the HSE website on the latest advice, given it is a developing situation.