South Africa boy, 5, latest new virus suspect

Written by by Marc Siegel, CNN

Dr. Marc Siegel, a practicing internist and MSNBC contributor, speaks to CNN’s Richard Quest about concerns over virus-contaminated chicken and how to protect yourself when traveling in developing countries.

Health officials were quick to announce Thursday that officials are investigating a new suspected coronavirus strain that has infected a 5-year-old boy in South Africa. The boy, who was the second case of suspected coronavirus infection in the country, received medical treatment last week.

The boy was recently hospitalized with advanced symptoms including respiratory trouble, in what health officials say is the first suspected human case of the new strain, which is a close relative of the SARS virus that erupted in 2003.

The virus has sickened 19 people in the Middle East and North Africa. More than half of those cases were known to have been contracted outside of the Middle East.

The World Health Organization said Thursday it was concerned about the virus spreading outside of the region. The case in South Africa is believed to be linked to poultry as it was traced to a commercial poultry processing facility.

The new potential link to the SARS virus appears to put the new strain, and the disease it’s linked to, squarely in the public health spotlight.

Siegel has voiced skepticism of WHO’s previous pronouncements about new viruses that have surfaced in the Middle East. The WHO in particular received widespread criticism in early 2011 when it erroneously stated that a virus discovered in the Middle East would likely spread to other parts of the world.

“My thinking is this new coronavirus as linked to the SARS virus and potentially it will spread among the people … getting around the country and around the world, in every part of the world, right?” Siegel said in an interview with CNN.

Siegel questioned why WHO is identifying this virus as new and different, when he has said previously that SARS was a traditional Middle Eastern coronavirus.

“So they say the old virus is associated with the new virus. … Well that’s not surprising when we know that the old virus is associated with the old virus all of a sudden, but when we knew that the SARS virus was a traditional M.E. virus all of a sudden we didn’t start saying that’s the new M.E. virus, we know what the old M.E. virus is,” he said.

“So how can a WHO and WHO Director-General say these two viruses are different, when the scientific evidence says the previous one is the original virus?

WHO issued new guidelines for health care workers handling possible cases of coronavirus Thursday.

The agency recommends steps such as wearing masks when possible and removing protective equipment as quickly as possible to prevent transmission.

Experts say the hardest part of the job will be finding clues about how to control the outbreak. Controlling animal populations that are not properly hygienic could be key, Siegel said.

“The one thing that has been proven to contain any sort of epidemic as a disease, it’s not preventative medicine, it’s not a massive vaccination campaign, it’s not a blood test, is an environmental cleanup,” he said.

While the WHO has not linked the outbreak to the current outbreak of bird flu in Asia, the South African outbreak has a cluster of poultry farm-related deaths, suggesting there may be a connection.

Vets and other health professionals are being encouraged to examine their past contacts with commercial poultry operations. In South Africa the migratory H5N1 bird flu virus was detected for the first time last fall, and South African health authorities are warning citizens to avoid buying and handling infected poultry and poultry products.

Health authorities are also reviewing whether to prohibit travel to the country by people who have traveled to areas with recent bird flu outbreaks.

Switzerland has suspended flights from Egypt to and from Switzerland, and members of the Swiss national parliament have issued a formal request to close airspace around Egypt due to potential bird flu concerns.

CNN’s Tom Watkins contributed to this report.

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