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Does this new epidemic constitute a health catastrophe? Not necessarily, according to experts. Coronaviruses, named for their spiky round appearance, are the organisms responsible for many mild upper respiratory miseries. The common cold is caused by a type of coronavirus. Occasionally, some strains mutate with potentially deadly new characteristics, as evidenced by past outbreaks of Sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Asia and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) in the Arabian Peninsula. Those mutations conveyed a not-insignificant bump in mortality, prompting extreme wariness of the current new virus.
Media frenzies are a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they are useful in generating health updates and warnings across the globe almost instantaneously. On the other, the information you get on an hourly basis may not be factual and may be more invested in sensation than information. While the images of throngs of masked Chinese citizens and the daily reports of new countries with corona infections are alarming, it is important to note that they are not as unusual as the news might seem to suggest.
So far, the Wuhan coronavirus incurs about a 3% mortality rate. As usual, the illness is most deadly to the very young, the very old, and those with preexisting immune or respiratory problems. For comparison, SARS reached a range of double digits, and MERS an astonishing 35%. Influenza and its complications claim approximately 36,000 lives per year in the U.S. alone, with historical international fatalities in the millions. Wuhan’s bug has been far less potent, but due to its rapid emergence, these numbers could get worse.
Preventing the further spread of corona has been the focus of governmental and international health agencies. Until more is understood about Wuhan coronavirus, it’s important to limit its ability to spread. Human-to-human cases have been positively identified, so movement from infected travel zones has been temporarily halted. Viruses have an undetectable incubation period, however, and despite these efforts, we will continue to see at least some new cases rise up in different locations.
There is no vaccination and no cure for coronavirus infections. Like most respiratory illnesses, your body simply has to clear the infection by its own mechanisms. Prevention is the best medicine.
Here are some ways you can protect yourself and your family from infection:
Wash your hands frequently. Respiratory viruses rely on routes out of the airway of one person and into the mucous membranes of another, where they propagate. Hand-to-face contact is the most common source of infection. If you are out of your home and touching any public surfaces or are face-to-face with other people, wash your hands.
Forgo sharing any food, cups, or utensils that have been handled by someone else. This is especially true of office spaces, schools, or even between family members that have been out of the home.
Use germicidal wipes on shared surfaces. Both at work and at home, wipe down phones, door handles, and counter surfaces frequently.
Avoid crowds until the danger is past. Throngs of people are like the Autobahn for respiratory bugs. This can be inconvenient, but if possible, stay away from malls, airports, restaurants, and public gatherings until the epidemic is over.
If you do get sick with Wuhan coronavirus:
Take care of yourself. Treat your body as you would with any cold virus. Get plenty of rest, fluids, and proper nutrition.
Wear a mask. Since our airways are the exit route for coronaviruses, nip it in the bud by wearing a mask to help prevent further spread of the disease.
Monitor your symptoms. Since little is still known about this germ, this is very important. If you develop a highly productive cough, fever greater than 102, chest pain, or progressive shortness of breath, seek medical help right away.
Contact your local health department. If 2019 CoV finds its way into your part of the world, you may want to report your symptoms to your local health department, since they may be trying to track the disease.