Coronavirus… what you need to know

In December 2019, there were rumblings in the medical community of a new strain of virus infecting people in China. Within a month, coronavirus (COVID-19) was the topic of anxious conversation on social media, at gatherings, in school parking lots… with people rushing out in droves to purchase medical-grade masks in case the dreaded virus should happen to reach South African shores.

We live in an age where the world is easily accessible; tens of thousands of aeroplane flights across the world’s skies on a daily basis. When one considers that the average incubation period of the virus is reported to be five days, that patients are able to transmit the virus while still asymptomatic (although less so than when actively ill) and that there may be unaffected carriers, the challenges of containing this virus are huge. Should we be panicking? Are we headed into a pandemic?

What is all the fuss about coronavirus?

Coronaviruses were first identified in the 1960s. They are the culprits in mild cold-like infections affecting the upper respiratory tract. This is not the first time a coronavirus has “misbehaved”. At the end of 2002, another novel form of the virus, likely originating from bats, was responsible for the SARS epidemic. According to the WHO, 8 098 people were infected, 774 of whom died. That’s a significant mortality (death) rate of 9.6%.

By comparison, as of 17 February 2020, there were 71 429 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide with 1 775 deaths. This 2.5% mortality rate is reassuringly lower than that of the SARS outbreak since this virus appears to be less potent.

As is the case with many other viral infections, certain groups of the population are more likely to succumb if infected. Populations at risk are the elderly, patients with pre-existing heart disease, diabetes and pre-existing lung disease. In fact, data indicates that disease is mild in approximately 80% of infected patients.

According to the CDC, current understanding about how the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) spreads is largely based on what is known about similar coronaviruses.

How is COVID-19 spread?

Person-to-person spread

The virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person:

  • Between people who are in close contact with one another.
  • Via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
  • These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

Spread from contact with infected surfaces or objects

It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

When does spread happen?

  • People are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic (the sickest).
  • Some spread might be possible before people show symptoms; there have been reports of this with this new coronavirus, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

How to prevent getting infected with COVID-19

Just as doctors advise for any viral illness, prevention is aimed at limiting exposure.

  • Avoid crowded environments with poor ventilation.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Stay home if you are sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Clearly, travelling to affected areas is not recommended!

What about using a facemask to prevent infection?

Current recommendations advise against healthy people using masks to prevent being infected. Facemask use is advised for infected patients in order to reduce the spread of disease. Masks are also recommended for healthcare workers and those in close contact with infected individuals.

We’re more at risk of getting the flu!

In South Africa, we are also heading into “flu season”. Our risk of contracting the influenza virus during the winter months is staggeringly larger than our current exposure risk to COVID-19. Influenza is also a significant cause of morbidity (sickness) and mortality (death). So, let us not lose our heads over coronavirus and forget to protect ourselves against the flu virus with a timeous influenza vaccine.