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Deaths from China virus make sharp rise

Doubts remain about the true figures as Asia prepares to take a big economic hit

Deaths from China virus make sharp rise

A member of the medical staff walks past a memorial to late doctor Li Wenliang at the Houhu branch of Wuhan Central Hospital on Feb. 7. (Photo: AFP) 

Only days after infections from the respiratory virus now known as COVID-19 appeared to be at least flattening out if not peaking, a reclassification by Chinese authorities saw a midweek spike in numbers and the disease’s upwards trajectory continuing.

As of Feb. 14, more than 1,400 people had died and more than 64,000 were infected worldwide with the coronavirus, with many medical experts believing that the real fatality count is most likely higher. This is due to people who had not been tested dying of related illnesses broadly classified as pneumonia.

Hong Kong authorities have advised that Masses have been cancelled for the city’s 500,000 Catholics for two weeks. In Singapore Catholic churches have suspended catechism classes for children until March 1 and congregants are advised to avoid holding hands during Mass. Holy Communion is now received only on the hand.

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Many schools in the Asia-Pacific region remain closed or are insisting that any children returning from China are quarantined, while hundreds of flights both in and out of China as well as domestically across the People’s Republic have been canceled.

Businesses due to reopen after an extended Chinese Spring Festival remain shut, presaging a sharp downturn in economic activity in China that is forecast to flow into the rest of Asia.

But the midweek jump in numbers issued by Chinese authorities, combined with an unexplained decision to remove 1,000 from the number of infected, has raised further doubts about how real the numbers being issued actually are.

“Crucially, we understand that most of these cases relate to a period going back now days or weeks — retrospectively reported as cases since sometimes back to the beginning of the outbreak itself,” World Health Organisation official Mike Ryan told media at a press briefing on Feb. 13 to explain the changes.

“So this increase that you've all seen in the past 24 hours is largely down to a change in how cases are being diagnosed and reported. So in other words, in Hubei province only, a trained medical professional can now classify a suspected case of COVID-19 as a confirmed case on the basis of chest imaging rather than having to have a laboratory confirmation.”

Ryan said that this allowed clinicians to move and report cases more quickly without having to wait for lab confirmation, ensuring that people receive clinical care more quickly and allowing public health responses in terms of contact tracing and other important public health measures to be initiated.

Ahead of the spike, researchers at London’s Imperial College issued their fourth report on the epidemic, concluding that it was beginning to resemble a virulent flu epidemic where the fatality rate was likely about  1 percent. But it added it was still too soon to be certain and “the next few weeks” would provide valuable data

Still, the bulk of infections and deaths still appear to be heavily concentrated in the central province of Hubei where the virus was first identified. Two other main clusters have been identified in Heilongjiang province in the northeast.

Other countries across Asia continue to see a slow rise in infections but only in Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines have there been deaths.

Cambodia has claimed unlikely heroism for its dictator Hun Sen, who allowed the cruise ship The Westerdam to dock on Feb. 14 despite suspicions of infections among passengers. It had been refused permission to dock in four countries.

“Today, although Cambodia is a poor country, Cambodia has always joined the international community to solve the problems that the world and our region are facing,” PM Hun Sen said said as the first passengers disembarked.

“No reports of viral illness have been confirmed among its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members,” Associated Press reported. “Some 20 passengers had reported stomach aches or fever, but tests for the virus done at the Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh showed none had the illness.”

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