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Brazilian Who Visited Italy Is First Coronavirus Patient in Latin America

February 26th, 2020 | by New York Times News
Brazilian Who Visited Italy Is First Coronavirus Patient in Latin America

Health officials were scrambling to track the man’s movements after his infection was confirmed.

By Ernesto Londoño, Manuela Andreoni and Letícia Casado

RIO DE JANEIRO — A 61-year-old São Paulo man who returned recently from a business trip to Italy has tested positive for the coronavirus, Brazilian health officials said on Wednesday, confirming the first known case in Latin America and sending a shudder through the entire region.

Officials were scrambling on Wednesday to track down the other passengers on the flight the man took to Brazil and to find others who had contact with him in recent days. The infection news broke in the midst of Brazil’s Carnival celebrations, popular with foreign visitors.

The first confirmed case also compounded concerns about the potential economic toll on Latin America from the coronavirus, which has since spread to more than two dozen countries around the world. Stock prices plunged in Brazil and Mexico on Wednesday amid growing signs that emergency measures aimed at containing the spread could jam supply chains and impede freedom of movement for a lengthy period.

“Everything is pointing to this epidemic being longer than we had anticipated,” said Welber Barral, a commerce expert in Brazil. “Global supply chains are integrated.”

The diagnosis was announced by the health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who added that Brazil was investigating 20 additional potential cases, including 12 patients who recently traveled to Italy.

The man was said to have traveled to northern Italy from Feb. 9-21. Although the virus originated in China, there has been a surge of cases in Italy, most notably in the northern region of Lombardy.

As the virus spread briskly across international borders in recent weeks, Latin America was spared.

But health officials in the region have been on high alert, anticipating that it was only a matter of time before the virus arrived. “It’s a global world,” Mr. Mandetta said. “It’s an interconnected world.”

Lívio Ribeiro, an economist at Fundação Getúlio Vargas University who studies China, said he expected the fallout in Latin America from the coronavirus will be greater than that of the 2003 SARS outbreak, which also originated in China.

Several of the leading economies in the region had been growing sluggishly, if at all, even before the coronavirus scare.

“This is a moment of great aversion to risk,” Mr. Ribeiro said. “Regardless of whether an economy is dependent on China or not, everyone is being affected.”

Brazil health officials said medical personnel had been given detailed guidance on diagnostic and treatment protocols for the coronavirus. But experts warned that funding cuts in recent years had left Brazil ill-equipped to grapple with an epidemic.

Mr. Mandetta told a news conference that the case might shed light on how the virus spreads in warmer climates. “This is a new virus,” Mr. Mandetta said, noting experts have yet to ascertain “how it behaves.”

Earlier, Mr. Mandetta told the G1 news site that officials were hopeful that the virus would not spread briskly in Brazil given the summer time of year in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Brazilian man who tested positive sought care at Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital in São Paulo on Tuesday after coming down with a fever, a cough and a sore throat. The patient is in stable condition and has been asked to remain in quarantine at home for at least 14 days, officials said.

The São Paulo case emerged two days after a group of Brazilians who had been in quarantine after returning home from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak, were found to be healthy and allowed to resume normal activities.

José Gomes Temporão, a former health minister who oversaw Brazil’s response to the H1N1 virus in 2009 and 2010, said Brazil has a solid health surveillance system, which could enable officials to diagnose cases promptly.

But, in contrast to Mr. Mandetta’s optimism, he also cautioned that spending cuts had crippled the public health care system in recent years, leaving the government poorly prepared to grapple with an epidemic.

“We are cutting resources to public health, and we will need additional resources now,” Mr. Temporão said.

Dr. Nancy Bellei, an infectious disease specialist, said that personnel at the private hospital where the 61-year-old patient sought care appeared to have acted quickly and to have followed best practices. But she, too, expressed concerns about whether Brazil’s underfunded, overburdened public hospitals were ready for an influx of patients.

“We need to see how the public system is going to handle this situation because the number of cases is bound to increase,” she said.

Brazil receives a surge of international visitors during this time of year as tourists come for Carnival, Dr. Bellei said, and “that means there’s a large flow of people.”

Estevão Portela, the deputy director for clinical services at Brazil’s Evandro Chagas Institute for infectious diseases, said the way the virus spreads in the country may yield valuable information about the nature of the disease in warmer climates.

“Brazil has an opportunity to contribute with research,” he said.

But Mr. Portela said the virus also could bring into sharp focus how badly Brazil needs to strengthen the public health system, which has been commended for its response to previous crises but now struggles with spending cuts.

Julio Frenk, a physician who served as Mexico’s health minister from 2000 to 2006 and has closely studied health care systems in the region, said most large countries in Latin America have strong epidemiologic surveillance systems. But Dr. Frenk, now president of the University of Miami, said he worried that populist governments in the region, including those in Mexico and Brazil, had made dangerous cuts in science and medical research.

“I hope this is a wake-up call,” Dr. Frenk said.

Article courtesy of: The New York Times

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