CORONA VIRUS OUTBREAK
The new Corona virus (Covid-19) has spread to nearly every country in the world since it first emerged in China at the beginning of the year. More than 558,500 people are known to be infected and more than 25,200 deaths have been recorded – including 759 in the UK.
What is a coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause disease in animals. Seven, including the new virus, have made the jump to humans, but most just cause cold-like symptoms.
Covid-19 is closely related to severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) which swept around the world from 2002 to 2003. That virus infected around 8,000 people and killed about 800 but it soon ran itself out, largely because most of those infected were seriously ill so it was easier to control.
Another coronavirus is Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), cases of which have been occurring sporadically since it first emerged in 2012 – there have been around 2,500 cases and nearly 900 deaths.
Covid-19 is different from these two other coronaviruses in that the spectrum of disease is broad, with around 80 percent of cases leading to a mild infection. There may also be many people carrying the disease and displaying no symptoms, making it even harder to control.
So far, around 20 percent of Covid-19 cases have been classed as “severe” and the current death rate varies between 0.7 percent and 3.4 percent depending on the location and, crucially, access to good hospital care. Scientists in China believe that Covid-19 has mutated into two strains, one more aggressive than the other, which could make developing a vaccine more complicated.
How did the outbreak start?
The source of the coronavirus is believed to be a “wet market” in Wuhan which sold both dead and live animals including fish and birds.
Such markets pose a heightened risk of viruses jumping from animals to humans because hygiene standards are difficult to maintain if live animals are being kept and butchered on-site. Typically, they are also densely packed allowing the disease to spread from species to species.
The animal source of Covid-19 has not yet been identified, but the original host is thought to be bats. Bats were not sold at the Wuhan market but may have infected live chickens or other animals sold there.
Bats are host to a wide range of zoonotic viruses including Ebola, HIV, and rabies.
How big could the pandemic get?
The disease has already taken hold in Europe, the United States, and Southeast Asia and is beginning to wreak havoc in Africa and South America. The World Health Organization is particularly concerned with the ability of the poorest countries in the world to control the disease. To find out more about what is likely to happen, click here.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Initial symptoms include fever, dry cough, tiredness and a general feeling of being unwell. Other symptoms are emerging such as a loss of taste and smell and stomach problems. For a full read-out of the symptoms and treatment of coronavirus, click here.
Is there a cure for the coronavirus?
There is no specific treatment, although doctors are trialling existing drugs for viruses such as Ebola, malaria, and HIV. Early results seem promising but, until full clinical trials have been concluded, doctors cannot be certain that the drugs are effective.
Work to develop a vaccine is accelerating but it is unlikely to be available until next year.
How is coronavirus spread?
Like cold and flu bugs, the virus is spread via droplets when a person coughs or sneezes. The droplets land on surfaces and are picked up on the hands of others and spread further. People catch the virus when they touch their infected hands to their mouth, nose or eyes.
It follows that the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to keep your hands clean by washing them frequently with soap and water or a hand sanitizing gel.
Is the coronavirus airborne?
There is some debate about whether the disease is airborne – there is no evidence for it yet, but that could change. Airborne viruses linger for a longer period of time than those spread by droplets and can also be spread in air conditioning and ventilation systems.
The current advice is that the disease can only be spread between close contacts – defined as spending more than 15 minutes within two meters of an infected person.
How serious is the disease?
According to data on the first 44,000 cases released by the Chinese authorities, 80 percent of cases are mild.
In roughly 14 percent of cases the virus causes severe disease, including pneumonia, and shortness of breath. In about five percent of patients it is critical, leading to respiratory failure, septic shock, and multiple organ failure.
According to the WHO, the death rate in Wuhan is two to four percent, whereas in the rest of China it is around 0.7 percent.
The death rate around the world varies greatly. For example, Spain has had far fewer cases than China – 64,000 compared to China’s 81,000 – but has had far more deaths, 4,800 compared to 3,200 in China. While Germany has had 47,000 cases and 285 deaths.
The reasons vary: experts believe it could be to do with the way deaths are counted, the age of the people affected and the state of the health service in each country.
Is there anything I should be doing to prevent myself from getting it?
Yes – there are plenty of basic precautions you can take to protect yourself against catching respiratory viruses of this type – as well as following government advice and staying at home. Click for a full briefing on the symptoms, treatments and precautions you can take against the new coronavirus.
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