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Let’s Put the Coronavirus News in Perspective

Our family practice doctors at Cohen Medical Associates in Delray Beach have watched the recent coronavirus headlines with increasing alarm:

“Fears mount as deadly new coronavirus spreads faster”

 “A modern pandemic”

“Global health crisis snowballs”

These, of course, are often underlined by a breathless, red-bannered “BREAKING NEWS” chyron, adding additional urgency to the story.

Our alarm, however, is not triggered by the information contained in these news reports, but in the panic they may induce in the general population. Let’s face it: fear sells. That means people will watch, read, and click on scary-sounding headlines, whether they’re justified or not.

Yes, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak a “global health emergency,” but that’s mainly because it was concerned about the spread of the virus to developing nations with poor health infrastructures in place.

“Our assessment remains that the immediate risk to the American public is low,” said Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

So we want to give you a little background and try to put this story into some rational perspective.

 

What we know to date

Coronaviruses are a related group of viruses that can cause numerous illnesses, from colds to flu to more serious infections. Previous coronaviruses that caused widespread concern include the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SAS) outbreaks.

They are so-named because under a microscope the virus looks like a crown, hence “corona,” which is Latin for crown.

The Wuhan coronavirus (also known as 2019-nCov) is a new strain of virus that has infected thousands of people in more than 20 countries, and killed more than 900 in China out of 40,000 reported cases there. It is believed to have originated from live animals sold for food in a Wuhan market, which infected the humans who consumed them. The virus appears to spread not only in the traditional way (through respiratory droplets), but also through the urine, saliva, and stool of infected persons.

It does not appear to be as infectious as the measles virus, which can survive in the air for up to two hours after an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can incubate in infected persons for about three days, although the latest research from China indicates that, in isolated cases, it can be as long as 24 days before symptoms appear.

Symptoms are typical for a respiratory virus: coughing, sneezing, fever, and congestion. As with all coronaviruses, there is the possibility of progression to more serious—and sometimes deadly—complications: pneumonia, acute respiratory syndrome (fluid build-up in the lungs), and kidney failure. The likelihood of complications is higher for the very young, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.

According to the WHO, about 20 percent of cases are considered to be severe. The fatality rate is relatively low, with between 1 ½ percent and 5 ½ percent of those infected outside China dying from it. The fatality rate is higher in certain Chinese provinces.

 

How the flu compares

However, we have a far more deadly virus currently spreading among us: influenza. As of this writing, the seasonal flu has infected more than 22 million Americans across the country, and killed more than 12,000 of us, including at least 78 children. Health officials predict that the 2019-2020 flu season will prove to be one of the worst in a decade. And yet, no one is panicking over this.

The difference is familiarity, according to experts. We’ve always had the flu around in the winter months—including the 1918-19 outbreak which killed between 20 million and 50 million people worldwide—so we’ve grown used to it.

“We fear the unknown and we crave information about new and emerging infections,” Dr. Margot Savoy told CNN. She is the chair of Family and Community Medicine at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine. “We can’t quickly tell what is truly a threat and what isn’t, so we begin to panic—often when we don’t need to.”

 

What you can do

To protect yourself against infection with the Wuhan virus, you should take the same precautions as with colds or the flu: wash hands frequently, avoid touching your face, cough into your arm or a tissue, avoid contact with anyone who is sick, and stay home if you are sick.

Although health organizations worldwide are working rapidly to develop a vaccine, none is yet available. We do, however, have a vaccine against the flu, which—as we noted—is so far much more deadly than the Wuhan coronavirus. So if you haven’t already done so, get vaccinated for the flu.

 

And please let us know if you have any questions about this or any other health concern.

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