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Protecting children against novel coronavirus

KUALA LUMPUR (Feb 5): Parents should take preventive measures to protect their children against any viral infection, more so now in light of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak.   

Infectious diseases expert Datuk Dr Christopher Lee said although no case of people-to-people transmission of 2019-nCoV has been reported in Malaysia, the public must still take the necessary precautions to prepare for any eventuality. 

"Children face the same risk of infection as adults and as such, the preventive steps apply to them as well.

"In respect of this, parents and schools must keep reminding children to frequently wash their hands and not to touch their eyes, nose and mouth without washing their hands first," Dr Lee, who recently retired as deputy director-general of Health (Research), told Bernama.

Dr Lee was previously national head of infectious diseases at the Ministry of Health.

He said efforts like frequent washing of hands would over time become habitual, which will help to protect children against infections.

"At least, we will be better prepared (in the event of an infectious disease outbreak)," he added.

Low immunity

The novel coronavirus, which was first detected in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, can cause inflammation of the lungs. Symptoms of infection include fever, cough and difficulty in breathing.

In Malaysia, 10 people have been tested positive for 2019-nCoV as of yesterday, with nine of the patients being Chinese citizens and the remaining, a 41-year-old Malaysian man who had returned from Singapore after a business trip from Jan 16 to 23.

Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said in a statement last night that a four-year-old girl from China who was treated at Sultanah Maliha Hospital, Langkawi, Kedah for 2019-nCov was allowed to return home after recovering from the disease.

“The 2019-nCoV repeat detection tests carried out on her twice have turned up negative. The child is now in good health and has been allowed to return home,“ he said.

Paediatrician Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail said although so far there are no cases of deaths involving children due to the 2019-nCoV outbreak, they must take the necessary precautions as their immune systems are weaker than that of adults.

"Similar to what happened during SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2002), children are less likely to be infected but once they are 'hit', they are expected to face severe complications due to the immunity factor and their smaller lung size," he said.

Dr Zulkifli, who works at KPJ Selangor Specialist Hospital in Shah Alam, said besides encouraging children to frequently wash their hands with soap and water, they should also be kept away from sick individuals and not taken to crowded places.

He also said that breastfeeding and vaccinations are the best protection for babies while children need a balanced diet to strengthen their immune system.

Sound health management system

Meanwhile, commenting on Malaysia's preparedness to deal with the new coronavirus, Dr Lee said the nation has a sound health management system as the Ministry of Health had previously handled serious infections such as SARS, the Nipah virus and Ebola.

"The ministry complies with all the recommendations issued by the World Health Organisation. In addition, we also have agencies providing the necessary services to check any outbreak of the coronavirus infection," said Dr Lee, who is experienced in handling SARS, Nipah and Ebola cases.

He also urged the public to cooperate by complying with the advice and recommendations made by the authorities. More importantly, he added, they should not believe fake news reports circulated by irresponsible parties as it would only worsen the situation.

On the quarantine period for patients who are tested positive for 2019-nCoV, Dr Lee said the recovery period for the patients may differ, depending on the type of infection and the complications they suffered from.

He also said that more studies have to be carried out to get accurate data in order to determine whether or not patients who recover from the coronavirus infection will remain free of similar infections in future.

"The outbreak in China will last months at the very least if they can control it there. The full health impact will only be clear when we get more details, including the actual mortality rate, as many mild or asymptomatic cases were not tested in China due to the large numbers (cases all occurring at the same time).

"At the moment, with the current available data, it (2019-nCoV) seems to be more infectious but less severe than SARS. The picture will be clearer as we obtain more data moving forward,” he added.

On reports that the drug nelfinavir can be used to treat coronavirus infection, Dr Lee said: "There's no confirmation yet but they are trying some HIV drugs, including lopinavir, which were tried during the previous SARS outbreak. However, it is not a recognised treatment by any means… it is still under study/research."

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