Coronavirus: what we know so far and how to protect yourself
20th February 2020
Whenever a new virus mutates, there is always the possibility of panic. The idea of an infection spreading when we know relatively little about how it operates is certainly a concern, but it can be very difficult for the average person on the street to know exactly how concerned they should be.
The coronavirus currently making headlines (now officially named Covid-19) is one of those viruses having only been in existence for a few months, and the world is still learning about its causes, infection rate and effects.
Dr Simon Goldenberg is one of St John and St Elizabeth Hospital’s Consultant Microbiologists, advising on any patients with an infection and working with the Infection Control Team to prevent the spread of infection while patients are in the Hospital. Below he outlines what you need to know about the coronavirus and how to protect yourself from it and other viruses.
The world is in the early stages of learning about the coronavirus.
We know it’s a new virus from the same family that have caused problems in the past few years. It is from a family of viruses including SARS and MERS that cause respiratory infections and was first identified in Wuhan, China. To date, there have been several thousand cases, mostly restricted to China, but it has spread to a few other countries such as Japan, Singapore, Korea and Thailand.
We have to remember that our understanding of the virus is in its very early stages and there is a risk the media can over exaggerate things. It’s important to maintain a good sense of perspective and not panic.
It has caused concern because it’s new and our understanding of it is limited
Covid-19 has most likely arisen from a mutation of an existing coronavirus and has undeniably caused a lot of infections in quite a short period of time, which is why it’s making the headlines.
However, it’s too early to speculate on its impact in comparison to other diseases; we just don’t have enough data. The flu, for example, has been around for hundreds of years and we know how it transmits between patients and what the risk factors are. The coronavirus, in contrast, has only been studied since December 2019.
There are two risk factors that suggest someone might have the coronavirus.
Firstly, you need to have either recently travelled to one of the high risk countries, particularly China, or places like Japan, Thailand or Singapore, or have had direct contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus. Secondly, you need to have symptoms, and these are generally quite non-specific. It might be like having a cold or the flu: cough, fever or any kind of respiratory tract symptoms.
Public health organisations worldwide are deliberately using quite a low threshold for a possible case definition. They are being over sensitive because they don’t want to miss people. If you’ve travelled to one of these countries and you develop some respiratory symptoms within 14 days, then you should be tested. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have it – in fact, it’s very, very unlikely in this country that you will have it.
If you think you have coronavirus, call NHS 111.
NHS 111 will make a risk assessment over the phone. They’ll get some details about your symptoms and which parts of the world you have visited. If it meets the possible case definition then the advice will be that you should be tested.
How that happens is a little bit variable depending on where you live and what your personal circumstances are but it might be that you present in a controlled manner to an NHS hospital for testing, or it might be that someone comes round to your home and takes a sample there.
Don’t go to a hospital if you think you have coronavirus.
Obviously it’s transmittable to other people, so the last thing you want to do is bring it into a hospital. The majority of deaths have been in people with underlying diseases, which of course, there are many in hospitals. It’s about limiting transmission and not overwhelming the hospital services.
There are a number of ways to avoid contracting coronavirus.
It is the same set of principles when warding off any virus and it’s all about basic respiratory or cough hygiene. The main things are:
- Covering your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve when you cough or sneeze
- Not coughing into your hands.
- Bin used tissues straight away – don’t hold on to them.
- Wash your hands with lots of soap and water, maybe even sanitizer gel.
- Avoid close contact with those people who are unwell.
Scientists will almost certainly be able to create a vaccine against the coronavirus.
However, how long it will take them to do that is unclear. There’s a lot of effort and money being invested into this right now so we’re hopeful that something can be developed soon but whether that will be several months or a year or more, it’s not clear.
There are a range of reactions when contracting the coronavirus.
The cases in the UK appear to have quite mild symptoms, and are very similar to when you have a cold or the flu. Of course, there are some more severe cases in China that have required admission to ICU, and there have been deaths however that would be true of the flu. Ultimately, there’s a spectrum of severity but we believe that the majority of those who contract the disease in the UK will have fairly mild symptoms.
If you have travelled to any of the current affected areas in the last 14 days, or you have had direct contact with a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus and you have any flu-like symptoms please do NOT attend the Hospital. Please seek advice by calling 111, you can also find information by visiting the Public Health England website.