Coronavirus: World Health Organization pleads countries to test, warns children are dying

The World Health Organization (WHO) is pleading for countries to ramp up testing of every suspected coronavirus COVID-19 case as it warns children are dying of the illness. 

The potentially deadly virus has now infected 175,000 people and killed just over 6700 worldwide. In a speech on Tuesday, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned of a "rapid escalation" in cases, with more now reported outside of China, where the illness originated, than inside. He called the virus, which has been declared a pandemic, the "defining global health crisis of our time".

He said that while the vast majority of the dead were aged over 60, young people, including children, have also died. 

"We have seen a rapid escalation in social distancing measures, like closing schools and cancelling sporting events and other gatherings," he said.

"But we haven't seen an urgent enough escalation in testing, isolation and contact tracing, which is the backbone of the COVID-19 response."

Dr Ghebreyesus said WHO has sent almost 1.5 million tests to 120 countries and was working with companies to increase availability.

"You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected," he said.

"We have a simple message for all countries: Test, test, test. Test every suspected COVID-19 case. If they test positive, isolate them and find out who they have been in close contact with up to two days before they developed symptoms and test those people too."

He said, if possible, those with COVID-19, even mild cases, should be isolated in health facilities. But Dr Ghebreyesus recognised that some countries were reaching capacity, meaning older patients should be prioritised. 

If people with the virus are being cared for at home, strict guidelines should be followed. This includes ensuring the patient and caregiver are wearing a medical mask whenever they are in the same room. They should also sleep in different rooms and use separate bathrooms. 

"People infected with COVID-19 can still infect others after they stop feeling sick, so these measures should continue for at least two weeks after symptoms disappear. Visitors should not be allowed until the end of this period."

New Zealand, which has eight confirmed cases and two probable, is currently isolating anyone who enters the country for 14 days as well as close contacts of those with the illness. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says Aotearoa has the capacity to test everyone that requires it.

What we know about coronavirus

Coronavirus is primarily spread through droplets in the air after someone sneezes or coughs. However, it can also be contracted by touching surfaces where the illness is present, according to the World Health Organization. The length of time the virus stays alive on surfaces is unknown at this stage, but some viruses can remain active for days. 

The WHO was first informed of cases of the virus in Wuhan on December 31. It was identified as a coronavirus on January 7 and can spread through human-to-human transmission. 

"Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death," the WHO says.

"Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing."

There is currently no vaccine for the sickness.

How can I protect myself? 

  • avoid touching the mouth, nose and eyes with unwashed hands

  • washing your hands before eating

  • carrying a hand sanitiser at all times

  • being particularly mindful of touching your face after using public transport or going to the airport

  • carry tissues at all times to cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing (then dispose of it)

  • not eating shared or communal food

  • avoiding shaking hands, kissing cheeks

  • regularly cleaning and sanitise commonly used surfaces and items, such as phones and keys

  • avoiding close contact with people suffering from or showing symptoms of acute respiratory infection

  • seeking medical attention if you feel unwell.

A full explainer on protecting yourself from coronavirus can be found here.

The Ministry of Health is reminding the public to get in touch with Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if they have symptoms or concerns.