With the coronavirus on the cusp of becoming a pandemic as cases rise at alarming rates in more than 24 countries where the virus has spread to, Colombia has (until the print date of this publication) been spared the first case. Since its outbreak in the port city of Wuhan in late December last year, the scientifically named COVID-19 has placed mainland China in the grips of a medical crisis with more than 1,350 deaths,  60,000 infected and 60 million under quarantine.

In the United States, 14 cases have been confirmed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) with “more likely to be reported in the coming days and weeks,” claims a CDC statement given that the respiratory illness is spreading from person-to-person.

As many nations advise their citizens against all non-essential travel to China, Colombia is not immune to what the World Health Organization, WHO, has declared “a global health emergency,” but is better hedged as there are no direct flights that connect the country with Asia. According to Colombia’s interim Health and Social Protection Minister Iván Darío González, despite the lack of direct air routes “all international protocols are in place” to attend a possible outbreak of the virus on Colombian soil.

With screening points in place at major airports around the world, including Bogotá, on January 22, a Chinese citizen who landed at El Dorado Airport on a flight from Istanbul, Turkey, was taken to a local hospital to be checked for early signs of the virus. The 19-year-old underwent exams along with the two immigration officials from Migración Colombia who processed his arrival.

For every suspicious case in Colombia, (up to now, four in Bogotá and one in Cali, departmental capital of Valle del Cauca), the National Health Institute (INS) will confirm its findings with the Atlanta-based CDC. Both the Ministry of Health and INS “are attentive to the recommendations from the WHO Emergency Committee to update the risk assessment and corresponding action plans,” claims an INS statement.

Colombia’s Foreign Ministry recommends travelers heading to Asia to “seek out health services if they feel sick during or after a trip, and report to authorities the areas visited.” The Ministry of Health, INS, district Health Secretariat and Migración Colombia are stepping up controls at ports and coordinating contingency plans with airlines.

As COVID-19 set off the alarm bells for the latest epidemic for which there is no vaccine, China has accused the U.S of spreading “panic.” Despite the advance of the virus, however, the number of fatalities remains low given the WHO’S estimate that every year the seasonal flu causes between 250,000 to 500,000 deaths.

While the most recent public health crisis is unusual and frightening, Colombia, since 2015, has been exposed to a host of viruses, from Chikungunya, a highly-infectious mosquito-borne disease that attacks the body’s neurological system, to Zika, which in 2018 impacted large segments of the country’s rural population. During the last week of December 2019, the INS documented 2,350 cases of Dengue, 534 of Chikungunya, 429 of Zika, and 94 of severe respiratory influenza in the country.

To put the Wuhan virus within a hemispheric context, when Zika was at the peak of incidence across South America in 2017, the virus had spread to 46 countries, and more than 200 million were at risk of contracting a disease that attacks the body’s neurological and respiratory systems, and causes microcephaly in the unborn.

With the total number of people in China infected by the coronavirus surpassing the numbers of the 2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), researchers are scrambling to develop a vaccine before the virus can be categorized as a pandemic. But, even the most optimistic timelines claim that it could take a year before human clinical trials begin, and a timeframe, that as many other epidemics have shown, could too little too late.

Myths and facts of the Coronavirus by the World Health Organization:

Can pets at home spread COVID-19?

At present, there is no evidence that companion animals/pets such as dogs or cats can be infected with the new coronavirus. However, it is always a good idea to wash your hands with soap and water after contact with pets. This protects you against various common bacteria such as E.coli and Salmonella that can pass between pets and humans.

Does the new coronavirus affect older people, or are younger people also susceptible?

People of all ages can be infected by the new coronavirus. Older people and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.

WHO advises people of all ages to take steps to protect themselves from the virus, for example by following good hand hygiene and good respiratory hygiene.

Are antibiotics effective in preventing and treating the new coronavirus?

No, antibiotics do not work against viruses, only bacteria. The new COVID-19 is a virus and, therefore, antibiotics should not be used as a means of prevention or treatment. However, if you are hospitalized, you may receive antibiotics because bacterial co-infection is possible.

Are there any specific medicines to prevent or treat the new coronavirus?

To date, there is no specific medicine recommended to prevent or treat the new coronavirus. However, those infected with the virus should receive appropriate care to relieve and treat symptoms, and those with severe illness should receive optimized supportive care. Some specific treatments are under investigation and will be tested through clinical trials. WHO is helping to accelerate research and development efforts with a range or partners.