Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you cannot have missed the headlines about the Coronavirus. Examples from The Independent and The Sun read respectively: “Death toll reaches 106 as Boris Johnson says UK ‘urgently exploring’ options to evacuate Britons from Wuhan” and “Fears over rise in coronavirus cases in patients who’ve NEVER been to China”. The media have gone a bit wild, possibly taking focus away from other imminent events…but what’s the science, should we be worried, and is this a pandemic?
For the sake of clarity, and as the situation can change daily, this information was correct as of Wed 29th Jan: 97 people tested for coronavirus in total (UK), 0 have been positive. 5,974 infections have been noted in China, with 132 deaths (according to THIS article).
What is Coronavirus: Coronavirus is (unsurprisingly) a virus which is one of a family of viruses, common widely across the globe. It’s very likely that at some point you have had a coronavirus infection. Symptoms are flu-like, including fever and a cough which can progress to pneumonia, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. Those with weakened immune systems, older people and those with long term illness (such as cancer or chronic lung disease) are at greater risk of the more dangerous complications such as pneumonia. The media is talking about a new strain of coronavirus (2019-nCoV) which was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan. If you want more information about the UK’s current stance follow THIS LINK.
How is it transmitted: As with any flu, so far coronavirus is thought to be airborne: spread through sneezing, coughing, bodily fluids etc. Therefore, there has been a lot of precaution taken with those in Wuhan, the rest of China and slowly other countries too such as the US and UK who have introduced screening procedures for arrivals from China. I teach a lesson to KS3 (12-13 year olds) about how diseases spread. We map an outbreak of the flu and follow how quickly it passes to an entire town. As an example, if the infection rate is two, then each day an infected person can infect two others and so on until everyone is infected. Real outbreaks are also mapped like this:
How do we prevent and treat: Advise is to follow general good hygiene such as washing your hands, covering your mouth and nose when sneezing/coughing, avoiding close contact with infected people, staying at home if infected etc. These are all preventative measures suggested by WHO. Studies are being conducted into the spread of this particular coronavirus strain, and some are trying to predict the likely spread based on previous pandemics. However, every virus is different and there is currently no anti-viral treatment for this specific strain (which is common, remember Swine Flu?). People infected must seek care to relieve their symptoms and prevent a worsening condition.
The above images were courtesy of WHO, for more follow THIS LINK.
Why is this strain a possible problem? In 2003 an outbreak of the SARS (i.e. severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus which had originated in China in 2002, infected more than 8,000 people across 26 countries, killing almost 800. It was a devastating outbreak and one we had hoped everyone had learnt from. During the SARS outbreak, officials had “played down” the risk and suggested the threat had been contained. The outbreak also led to change within China’s medical system, quickening response times and automating processes. Although there is more transparency with this coronavirus outbreak and an improved medical response, one thing still wasn’t cleared up – the wild animal meat markets. These markets sell wild animals such a dogs, rats, wolf pups, snakes etc. and are a hotbed for spreading disease. As well as life threatening symptoms to those with weaker immune systems, the main concern is that this virus has jumped into the human population from animals (i.e. inter-species infection). Even avoiding such places now is pointless as the virus has mutated to infect humans. “The horse is already out of the barn,” – Dr W Ian Lipkin, a US-based epidemiologist.
Should you be worried? Right this very minute, the short answer is no. Unless you are in Wuhan, China or VERY close to someone infected from Wuhan, the likelihood of you currently getting infected is VERY low. However, that doesn’t mean this can’t change. The definition of a pandemic according to WHO is: “a pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease, [to which] most people do not have immunity. Viruses that have caused past pandemics typically originated from animal influenza (flu) viruses.” The Spanish flu of 1918 infected 500 million people across the World, killing an estimated 50 million. Pandemics are dangerous and can be devastating.
It is important then to note that this strain of coronavirus is NOT currently at pandemic level. The WHO have so far chosen to not make this an emergency and therefore, prevention of spread is the BEST way to protect everyone in the short term. Year on year, the flu (influenza) kills thousands. In 2019-2020 flu season, over 8,000 deaths were reported in the US due to complications from the flu. Coronavirus may become a pandemic if the right measures are not taken, or it may go out with a fizzle; listen to WHO and not necessarily the media. Prevention is key.
If possible you should watch “Pandemic” on Netflix, it’s good insight for what goes on in an outbreak.