Li Wenliang: Ophthalmologist hero

February 26, 2020

Physician was first to sound alarm about coronavirus 

Much attention these days is focused on the epidemic being caused by a novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China.

Apparently, it is quite transmissible and affected persons can transmit the organism to others before any overt signs or symptoms of infection develop. 

One infected person, for example, is responsible for starting an outbreak of the disease on a cruise ship. Dozens of passengers contracted the life-threatening infection and 3,500 of them were confined to their rooms on the quarantined ship.

Previously by Dr. McDonnell: Doctors, nurses and medical records 
 

As I write this, the number of persons infected is coming closer to 100,000 and the number of fatalities is approaching 2,000 (many authorities believe these numbers to be substantial underestimates).

 

A pandemic?
Whether the efforts currently under way to stem the spread of this disease will be effective or a pandemic (epidemic spread involving two or more continents) will ensue remains unknown. 

From what I have read, some epidemiologists believe a pandemic is likely, whereas other authorities seem to think the risk is low and are vocally critical of those they accuse of fearmongering. The history of this infection will be written in time as epidemiologists analyze the organism and the response of authorities’ interventions. 

A sad and interesting part of the story is that played by an ophthalmologist whom many of his fellow Chinese citizens are calling a hero. Li Wenliang is credited with being the first medical professional to sound the alarm on the new virus. 

Related: Perils of Project Nightingale 

According to news reports, he saw seven patients with a SARS-like infection with conjunctival involvement in his hospital in Wuhan. He sent a message to his medical school classmates to alert them to this observation and urge them to be careful.

When the local authorities became aware of his report, they summoned Dr. Li to a police station, reprimanded him for spreading rumors, threatened him with punishment, and made him sign a form admitting that he was wrong to have sent the message and that he would not repeat the transgression. 

Sadly, Dr. Li later developed the infection himself (more than 1,700 medical personnel have so far contracted the disease and six have died). 

 

Related: Hospital closures hurt
 

Reports on social media 
Dr. Li sent reports on social media from his hospital bed until the disease took his life. According to news reports, many in China consider him a hero for raising what proved to be a valid concern and a victim of heavy-handed officials.

China’s Supreme Court has vindicated Dr. Li’s actions and criticized the officials who commanded him to be silent. Whether the ultimate outcome of the epidemic would have been different if Dr. Li’s concerns had been taken seriously and more timely public health measures taken is unclear right now (at least to me). But China’s Supreme Court said, “It might have been a fortunate thing ... if the public had listened to [Dr. Li’s] ‘rumor’ at the time.”

It would not have seemed likely to me that a viral epidemic responsible for a life-threatening lung infection would be first recognized by an ophthalmologist. 

This fact does point out the role that all physicians can play in being alert to changes in the spectrum of disease in their populations.

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References:

1. https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/07/asia/china-doctor-death-censorship-intl-hnk/index.html