Prevention while searching for a cure

Hand-washing and masks will help Nepal cope with infectious diseases that pre-date COVID-19


With no proven cure or vaccine available yet for COVID-19, various treatments with no proven benefits and potential deadly side-effects are being tried out on patients.

One example of a desperate treatment measure is a New York City doctor carelessly declaring on primetime tv recently that COVID-19 pneumonia was similar to high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), and he recommended high altitude drugs like Diamox for the treatment of Covid-19.

Trekkers in Nepal are familiar with Diamox, a pill they take to acclimatise better when hiking at higher altitudes. There is no scientific basis that the drug will work, but this idea of very low oxygen (hypoxia) and pneumonia in both afflictions was appealing.

To counter this some of us in Nepal and other countries have a forthcoming Opinion in the British Medical Journalcautioning against this rash treatment strategy using high altitude medicines. In medicine, doctors have to remember the maxim, Primum non nocere (‘above all do no harm’).

But there are some silver linings if Nepal escapes the worst of COVID-19Tuberculosis rates, which are very high in South Asia (more than 400 per 100,000) could go down if people continue to use the masks since it will also mean that a tuberculosis patient will not spread the bacteria, not to mention other respiratory infections.

Similarly, as more people get into the habit of washing hands with soap and water where available, the rates of diseases like typhoid and hepatitis A and E, caused by fecal oral transmission, will certainly be reduced.

An average of 230 people used to be killed every month on Nepal’s highways and streets. The lockdown has now lasted a month, and that is approximately the number of lives saved due to vehicles being off the roads.

The importance of public health for both the rich and poor countries has been highlighted by the pandemic. Industrialised countries had thought they had been done with infectious diseases, except perhaps the odd HIV patient. This pandemic has given great pause to that argument. Developing countries which having tried to come to grips with pre-existing epidemics have used lessons learnt in dealing with coronavirus in prevention.

The Indian state of Kerala for example, has done relatively better in dealing with COVID-19 partly because it utilised prior lessons from the Nipah outbreak a year ago. Other South Asian countries with robust public health infrastructure like Sri Lanka also have a better handle on the disease.

They strengthened their public health system, and it has paid rich dividends. South Korea too had an outbreak of MERS Coronavirus in 2015 which was brought by a South Korean returning from Kuwait, but they were able to effectively control the spread, and have been dealing successfully (so far) with the novel coronavirus. Singapore had been doing well, but discovered last week that it had a blind spot in the migrant workers’ dormitories. It has now announced a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown till 1 June.

South Asian countries have had more time in preparing for the contagion, while they wait for a vaccine or drugs to treat COVID-19. Treatment trials are happening all over the world even as the patients and doctors await with bated breath (pardon the pun). In all likelihood, we will soon know if chloroquin works or not before we have a vaccine.

Vaccines will be a game-changer against Covid-19, and competition is heating up because whoever makes this vaccine first will be the knight-in-shining armour. China, USA, UK are probably a few of the countries engaged in developing a vaccine, and among them are researchers at Oxford University Clinical Research Unit who collaborated closely with Patan Academy of Health Science in a recent successful typhoid vaccine study.

This Oxford University group lead by Professors Sarah Gilbert and Andrew Pollard are optimistic about producing a million doses of the vaccine by autumn. The vaccine will be eventually required not in the millions, but in billions of dosages. It also has to be affordable for countries like ours.

For making vaccines promptly for neglected tropical illnesses, it is hard to beat the Chinese. When Japanese Encephalitis (JE) was raging in China and South Asia, it was the Chinese who tested, developed and made available the ‘Chengdu vaccine’ that revolutionised the prevention of the mosquito-borne disease. The earlier vaccine was expensive and only tourists in Nepal could afford it.

Similarly, when hepatitis E was a scourge in China, the Xiamen Innovax Biotech came up with a vaccine in 2012 to protect vulnerable populations. Because there is no other commercial vaccine available against hepatitis E, it will be valuable in South Asia if the virus is rampant again and affect pregnant women with a fatal outcome.

Nepal clearly needs to have a strong public health infrastructure in collaboration with a prestigious institute abroad to be able to tackle COVID-19 and other infections. Just like earthquakes, there will be more pandemics in future. Humanity needs to up its game in the control of emergent infectious diseases, and Nepal can make a small contribution by helping itself, especially by strengthening public health.

Buddha Basnyat is a clinical researcher at Patan Academy of Health Sciences and a frequent health columnist for Nepali Times.Prevention while searching for a cur

Buddha Basnyat