False virus news can drag 'better prepared' Philippines: ex-SARS fighter

Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 29 2020 10:38 AM

A staff member checks the temperature of a passenger entering a subway station, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, China Jan. 28, 2020. Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters

MANILA -- Fighting misinformation risks eating into the Philippine government's resources that would otherwise be spent on dealing with the new coronavirus that the world is trying to contain, said Manila's former health minister who led the response to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) nearly two decades ago.

Compared to SARS, the Philippines is "better prepared" to respond to the novel coronavirus from Wuhan, China as negative pressure or isolation chambers and quarantine procedures are in place, said former health secretary Manuel Dayrit.

"Disinformation may cause public confusion, and cause wasteful deployment of resources in efforts to verify and to take corrective action," said Dayrit, also a former dean of the Ateneo School of Medicine who served at the World Health Organization in Geneva after his stint at the Department of Health.

"The downside is that false news and maliciously-manufactured information can really confuse and scare people," he told ABS-CBN News in an email interview.

China said Wednesday deaths due to the novel coronavirus had risen to 132 with nearly 6,000 people infected. Governments and companies around the world have warned against travel to China and readied their citizens there for possible repatriation.

Unlike during the SARS outbreak of 2002 to 2003, information on the new coronavirus is readily available, said Dayrit. In the absence of social media at that time, he hosted press briefings regularly for 2 months to keep the public updated.

The Philippines has yet to confirm any case of the pathogen that comes from the same family of viruses as SARS, authorities said Monday. However, at least 6 schools in Manila suspended classes on Monday over false online information that the capital had a coronavirus case.

"Fear of the unknown" propagates fake news on the disease, said Health Secretary Francisco Duque, who urged the public to monitor his agency's daily advisories. 

"Magtulong-tulungan tayo, hindi iyong panggalingan at magdulot tayo ng pangamba at takot... Ano bang maidudulot ng pagpapakalat ng fake news?" he told DZMM Wednesday.

'NERVE-WRACKING SARS FIGHT'

Foreign domestic workers wear masks to protect themselves from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), in Hong Kong March 30, 2003. Kin Cheung, Reuters/File

In 2003, the Philippines investigated cases of SARS. The Filipina nurse who died from SARS did not show symptoms and slipped through immigration checks when she arrived from Canada, said Dayrit. 

Authorities had to track down 200 people who came in contact with the nurse and locked down a village in Alcala, Pangasinan for 2 weeks to monitor anyone who might develop symptoms, he said. 

Suspected SARS cases were quarantined at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), which at the time lacked negative pressure rooms that suck in contaminated air to prevent it from getting out, he said. 

"It was very nerve-wracking because we had to make sure that the hospital staff were protected from getting infected themselves," said Dayrit, an epidemiologist. 

Due to "very intense" fear and panic among the public, the health department at one point also had to persuade a town mayor to allow an ambulance carrying a suspected SARS patient to pass through his city when he initially refused, Dayrit said.

A mourner wearing a mask to protect himself from SARS stands under an umbrella during the funeral of a SARS doctor in Hong Kong May 22, 2003. Bobby Yip, Reuters/File

Tourist arrivals also dropped after the World Health Organization included the Philippines in its list of areas with local SARS transmission, which required Dayrit to brief the business community on how the government was fighting the virus, he said. 

The RITM now has several negative pressure rooms. Quarantine protocols, which were just being set up when SARS hit, have become “routine,” he said. 

“The Philippines is actually better prepared to manage the nCoV outbreak because the epidemic control infrastructure has matured,” said Dayrit. 

Authorities urge the public to wash their hands, hydrate well, avoid crowded places and wear face masks to avoid getting sick. 

More than 50 million people have been locked down in and around Wuhan, the central industrial city where the outbreak first began, in a bid by authorities to stop the new coronavirus infection. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping called the virus a "demon" during talks on Tuesday with the head of the World Health Organization in Beijing, and pledged a "timely" release of updates about the crisis. 

--- With a report from Agence France-Presse