MSF supports response to coronavirus outbreak in China

MSF has started an intervention for the outbreak of COVID-19

Hong Kong 2020 © Shuk Lim Cheung/MSF

This article was updated on March 4.

NEW YORK, FEBRUARY 14, 2020—The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced Friday that it will provide specialized medical protective equipment to Wuhan Jinyintan hospital in the capital city of China's Hubei province—the epicenter of the current outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease, now called COVID-19.

MSF is sending 3.5 metric tons of medical protective equipment from its supply center in Brussels, through the Hubei Charity Federation, to Wuhan Jinyintan hospital—one of the hospitals on the forefront of treating patients with COVID-19.

At the end of January, MSF also began a health education project in Hong Kong to provide information to vulnerable communities about how to identify symptoms and protect themselves from the disease. MSF will also send one metric ton of personal protective equipment to the Hong Kong St. John Ambulance service to supplement supplies until their stocks can be replenished.


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“As of February 14, there are more than 64,000 COVID-19 cases, 99 percent of which are in China,” said Gert Verdonck, MSF’s emergency coordinator for COVID-19. “Medical protective equipment is key. So, we want to contribute to supporting frontline health workers with the specialized protection they need to work safely in an outbreak of this magnitude.”

The World Health Organization has declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. The virus, which has now spread to 24 other countries across three continents, affects the respiratory system and appears to be transmitted through inhaling droplets spread by coughing or touching contaminated surfaces. The main symptoms include general weakness, fever, coughing, and difficulty breathing. It is estimated that 82 percent of the people who get infected will only suffer from a mild form of the disease.

Community engagement is a crucial component of any outbreak response. MSF’s health education project in Hong Kong focuses on vulnerable people—including people who are socio-economically disadvantaged and those who are more susceptible to developing severe disease if they are infected, such as the elderly.

“Our teams have already conducted face-to-face sessions with street cleaners, refugees, asylum seekers, and the visually impaired in recent weeks,” said Karin Huster, who oversees MSF’s project in Hong Kong. “We share up-to-date, evidence-based medical information. Perhaps even more crucially, we’re there to listen and answer the many questions that this new disease has generated. Fear can often spread faster than a virus, so helping people manage their stress and anxiety is a key focus for us.”

May Chan, a street cleaner in Hong Kong, attended an MSF health promotion session on COVID-19. “It is the first time to learn that if I cough without a tissue, I should cough into my elbow but not my hands. This helps keep my hands clean, and I think it is important for a cleaner to know that,” she said. Chan believes the correct application of infection prevention measures—such as frequent hand washing and wearing face masks properly—can help her stay healthy. 

MSF is also making preparations in case of an outbreak in other countries where it works. “In countries where MSF is operational, our patients are of particular concern,” said Dr. Tankred Stoebe, MSF emergency coordinator currently traveling across Southeast Asia. “Patients with already weakened immune systems are likely to be more vulnerable to a severe course of coronavirus. We are already speaking to our patients, such as our Hepatitis C patients in Cambodia, [about] what symptoms to look out for in order to provide them with accurate information and to help alleviate their fears.”

In several countries—predominantly in South and Southeast Asia—MSF is in contact with the health authorities and offering support should it be needed. This includes training of health workers on infection prevention and control measures and health education for vulnerable and at-risk groups, similar to MSF’s activities in 2003 during the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), caused by a related type of coronavirus.

“Lower middle-income countries like Cambodia or Laos have under-resourced health systems,” Stoebe said. “They struggle to provide services to their populations even without the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak. If a major epidemic occurs, these health systems could collapse. Precautions and preparation are critical at this stage to avoid health care facilities contributing to the spread of the disease.”