The World Health Organization yesterday declared the 2019 Novel Coronavirus outbreak that started in Wuhan, China, a public health emergency. As of this morning, more than 200 people have died, with more than 9.800 infections confirmed worldwide, according to The New York Times.
So naturally, we’re starting to freak out.
“When something’s novel, we often get more worried. Anything that sounds mysterious to people is scary, and I understand that,” says Dr. James D. Campbell, a professor of pediatrics at University of Maryland School of Medicine and a pediatric infectious disease specialist at University of Maryland Children’s Hospital.
We spoke to Dr. Campbell over the phone about the seriousness of this new outbreak and just how concerned we should be for ourselves and our kids. Here’s what we learned.
The coronavirus not actually a new virus
You may not be familiar with the name, but coronaviruses have been around for a very long time. They’re a class of viruses that cause the common cold and other upper respiratory tract infections involving the nose, the ears, the eyes and the throat. They get also down into lungs, and that’s when they can cause more severe lower respiratory tract infections, such as pneumonia or acute bronchitis which require more care.
Coronaviruses were also the cause of two major outbreaks in recent history: SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). The coronavirus at the source of this outbreak is being referred to as 2019 Novel Coronavirus, with novel meaning “new.”
The symptoms of this new coronavirus can vary
Individuals who have contracted novel coronavirus are showing a range of symptoms, from minor symptoms like runny nose, coughing, sneezing and congestion to more severe ones like difficulty breathing and high fever.
Your doctor can’t test for novel coronavirus — yet
The usual tests your primary care physician performs for respiratory infections doesn’t pick up this new coronavirus. Currently, the only test for this specific virus is available at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. Eventually that test will make its way to state health labs and then commercial labs.
There also aren’t any antiviral drugs for this coronavirus yet, but pharmaceutical companies are racing to make both a vaccine and an antiviral for it.
But don’t worry: You most likely don’t have novel coronavirus
“There’s no U.S. outbreak. There are single cases,” says Dr. Campbell. As of today, there have only been six confirmed cases of novel coronavirus in the United States. Six cases is not an outbreak.
Plus, each of those individuals had known contact with somebody already infected with coronavirus or had recently traveled from China. Unless there’s an epidemiological link, meaning you’ve had direct connection with someone who’s been diagnosed with this coronavirus, and you’re showing symptoms of respiratory illness, you really don’t have to be worried — about novel coronavirus, that is.
The flu, however, should cause concern
Dr. Campbell says people should be less scared of this new coronavirus and more worried about flu “because tens of thousands of people are hospitalized and thousands die every year, including, typically, hundreds of children,” he says.
Compared to five cases of novel coronavirus, there have been tens of millions of cases of influenza in the United States so far this season. According to the CDC, 8,200 individuals have died from flu, including 54 children.
The good news is that even though flu season has started, it’s not too late to get the vaccine. Flu epidemic tends to wind down by the end of March, beginning of April, but right now, flu activity is high. Your child in daycare or school is much more likely to come down with the flu than novel coronavirus.
There are things you can do to prevent contracting coronaviruses
Besides getting your flu shot, the number one thing you can do to prevent influenza or any other coronavirus, including novel coronavirus 2019, is hand washing. Infections get passed when you touch another person or an object covered in secretions and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth before washing your hands.
To stay healthy, wash with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer) and avoid touching your face.
Cover coughs or sneezes with a tissue and then throw the tissue away. If you don’t have a tissue handy, use your elbow to prevent germs from spraying out to other people.
And if you or someone in your family is coughing or sneezing onto objects like doorknobs, tables or toys, be vigilant about cleaning and disinfecting them. You don’t want to accidentally rub your eyes after turning a doorknob that somebody just sneezed on.