The outbreak of the new coronavirus in China has put the health system of Bangladesh on high alert while its facilities are already struggling to handle regular patients in the capital and elsewhere.
Health experts said that the health system here was not prepared to tackle the situation if anyone was found infected with the virus, which would likely create panic in the densely populated country.
On Saturday, the 312 Bangladeshis who were brought back from Wuhan of China, the epicentre of the novel virus, were released after two weeks of quarantine at the Hajj Camp near the Dhaka airport.
But people expressed concern if they still had the potential to spread the novel virus dubbed as Covid-19 that has so far killed at least 1,523 people in China and infected over 66,000 others.
General people also see with suspicion the screening of the travellers entering Bangladesh and the capability of the country to detect coronavirus cases as people from China, Singapore and other countries are getting into the country and mingling with people every day.
No coronavirus patient has so far been detected in Bangladesh while the government’s disease monitoring arm, Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research, installed a surveillance system and set up coronavirus sample collection points at the headquarters of all the 64 districts and 29 ports of entry.
The World Health Organisation has announced global emergency as the virus has already spread to over two dozen countries.
Four Bangladeshis have been infected with the virus in Singapore, where at least 67 people caught the infection.
Officials in Bangladesh said that they had activated a surveillance system in accordance with the epidemiological outline.
‘We are on high alert although no coronavirus-infected patient has been found in Bangladesh,’ said IEDCR director Meerjady Sabrina Flora on Saturday.
‘There is no scope for us to feel complacent …as long as a single incidence of coronavirus occurs in any country, we will consider us at risk,’ she said while briefing reporters at her office.
Bangladesh Health Rights Movement chairman Rashid-e-Mahbub said that the country’s health system was not prepared to tackle the situation if coronavirus-infected people entered the country.
‘The over-burdened health facilities of Bangladesh are not prepared to face such a health emergency,’ he said.
‘We really don’t know about the preparation of the government, but I would expect an all-out effort to gear up the isolation centres which are opened for coronavirus cases,’ he said.
Rashid, also a former president of Bangladesh Medical Association, said that the preventive measures like the screening of the travellers entering Bangladesh should be strengthened so that the country did not fall into a catastrophic situation.
IEDCR former director Mahmudur Rahman said that the screening mechanism should be foolproof so that the infected passengers could be detected and isolated within a short time.
The isolation centres at the hospitals should be well prepared as it is highly possible that infected cases would enter Bangladesh, he further viewed.
The 312 Wuhan returnees released from the quarantine on Saturday were allowed to go home, after health checkups and with advice from IEDCR experts with regard to onset of coronavirus symptoms.
A student who was quarantined at the Hajj Camp said that he was happy with the services provided by the health department.
He said that they were all subjected to checkup and provided with their passports and health cards and allowed to go home following a seminar and a dinner party.
The IEDCR advised all the China returnees, including the 312, to be aware if any symptoms of fever, coughing, sneezing and breathing difficulty were noticed in them and, if so, they should immediately contact the IEDCR after putting themselves in home quarantine.
‘Anyone of the 312 is not patient and they should not be alienated in the society,’ said Meerjady.
‘They all will be in regular touch with the IEDCR,’ she said.
The government has already set up coronavirus isolation centres at all the medical college hospitals and at the district hospitals for any suspected coronavirus cases.
The IEDCR has also formed health coordination committees across the country with the civil surgeons as the heads of the district committees.
Online training manuals have been sent to doctors across the country to make them prepare for the situation when any suspected coronavirus patient is detected.
The face-to-face training of doctors would start from this week, the IEDCR officials said.
Though the screening of passengers entering Bangladesh at the airports is not the deciding factor in whether the virus would spread or not in the country, the screening has been activated as a precautionary measure, they said.
On the average, around 15,000 people enter Bangladesh every day using the ports of entry. Bangladesh so far has not barred any flight operation with China, the centre of coronavirus outbreak, and Singapore, the country to have the second highest number of infected patients after China.
Passengers fill out forms with their travel information and are checked for fever. Any passenger with symptoms that could match the coronavirus infection is being sent for quarantine.
The IEDCR has stationed medical teams at 29 ports of entry to determine whether a sick person should be isolated and tested for the virus, said IEDCR chief scientific officer ASM Alamgir.
‘We have the setups to collect samples to test of any suspected person at the ports of entry and at the 64 district headquarters,’ he told New Age.
‘There is nothing to get panicked about,’ he said, adding, ‘We have activated a surveillance system across the country in accordance the epidemiological framework.’
The IEDCR has collected kits and reagents from the World Health Organization for testing coronavirus infection and the result can be obtained within two to three hours, he said.
There are limited numbers of thermal scanners at the ports of entry, officials admitted, but alternative scanners like hand-held temperature detectors were available at the ports.
New Age correspondents across the country reported that there were lackadaisical attitude among health officials at the ports of entry.
They said that many drivers were not being screened while passengers were even allowed to enter the country with mere verbal assessment.
The New Age correspondent in Lalmonirhat reported that the passengers entering through the land ports of Burimari, Hili, Banglabandha and Sonahat were not properly screened.
The drivers are not screened while the passengers fill out documents and are released after being asked if they have fever, cough or breathing difficulty.
Health Services director of Rangpur division Mokhidul Alam said that there were no thermal scanners in the division’s four ports but hand-held temperature detectors were in use and a process of installing a thermal scanner was under way.
The New Age correspondent in Sylhet reported that the procedure of checking body temperature of the passengers at Osmani International Airport was going on with manual thermometer as the thermal scanner had remained out of order since the beginning of February.
Sylhet civil surgeon Premananda Mandal said that the medical teams at the Sylhet airport and three land ports in the district were on alert to check the health of both incoming and outgoing passengers.
The Satkhira New Age correspondent reported that the thermal scanner at Bhomra land port remained out of order and the manual scanning of body temperature was going on.
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