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Deep Dive: China’s deadly coronavirus

Deep Dive: China’s deadly coronavirus

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The new year has begun with the outbreak of what could be the next deadly health epidemic- coronavirus.

An unidentified lung infection was found in 40 people in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Since then, number of people in China infected with this new virus, the coronavirus, has been increasing. Here’s everything we know so far about the deadly virus.

Origins of the coronavirus

Initially, Chinese authorities labelled the virus a new strain of pneumonia but upon further research it was confirmed to be a novel type of virus.

There are a family of viruses that originate in animals before making the jump to humans. Seven, including this one, have been identified in humans with only four causing mild, common-cold like symptoms. It is still unknown as to how the disease mutates and spread from animals to humans.

However, two of these strains have been found to be far more severe and have resulted in the death of more of 1,500 people between them. These two strains are the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

Although the exact root of the outbreak is still not know, it is speculated that it may have originated from a seafood market in Wuhan which also traded in other animals including bats and marmots.

It is further still unknown which animal this disease originated from, as is the level of ease with which it can be spread from person to person. Although the WHO said that there is ‘limited’ human to human transmission, the speediness of the outbreak would suggest that it spreads more easily than was first assumed.

How does the virus spread?

It spreads through droplets when a person coughs or sneezes. It can also spread through contact with contaminated surfaces such as door handles.

Once the virus spreads, some of the people who are at most risk are health workers. This is because when patients arrive at hospitals with vague respiratory illness like symptoms, health workers are unaware as to whether they should take special measures to treat them such as wearing masks. Other patients are also at risk.

Symptoms

It’s symptoms are like that of any other respiratory illness. Sufferers will have a fever, sore throat, runny nose, headache and general feeling of being unwell in the early stages of the disease. As the illness progresses, the patient may experience difficulty breathing. Due to the similarity of these symptoms to any other respiratory disease, coronavirus is incredibly difficult to control.

According to Chinese authorities, there has been an outbreak of a mysterious SARS-like virus that has thus far killed nine people and continues to affect hundreds more. Chinese authorities have warned that the virus has the potential to spread and become an epidemic.

In fact, the virus has already reached the United States. Other neighbouring countries have issued strict travel restriction alerts to contain the spread.

Treatment

There are no specific treatments for coronaviruses – just as there is no treatment for the common cold. Anyone with a severe form of the disease will receive antiviral medicine and support for symptoms.

The World Health Organisation has offered guidance to countries on how they can prepare for it, including how to monitor for the sick and how to treat patients.

Patients may need ventilation to assist breathing as well as support for their vital organs.

Can you prevent it?

There is no vaccine to protect against this family of viruses, at least not yet. Trials for a MERS vaccine are underway. You may be able to reduce your risk of infection by avoiding people who are sick. Try to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Wash your hands often with soap and water and for at least 20 seconds. If you are sick, stay home and avoid crowds and contact with others. Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and disinfect the objects and surfaces you touch.

Are certain groups more at risk?

Chinese authorities and the WHO have said that older patients are more likely to have a more severe form of the illness and at least two of the deaths have been among elderly people with underlying conditions. 

A five-year-old boy in the Philippines is also reported to have contracted the disease.

Coronavirus and pregnancy

In pregnant women, the more severe versions of MERS and SARS coronaviruses can be serious. There are cases in which a woman infected with MERS had a stillbirth, a 2014 study showed. SARS-associated illnesses were linked to cases of spontaneous abortion, maternal death and critical maternal illness, a 2004 study found.

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