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What is coronavirus, and should Americans be worried? What to know about the outbreak in China

Travelers wear face masks as they wait their flight at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Face masks sold out and temperature checks at airports and train stations became the new norm as China strove Tuesday to control the outbreak of a new coronavirus that has reached four other countries and territories and threatens to spread further during the Lunar New Year travel rush. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Travelers wear face masks as they wait their flight at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Face masks sold out and temperature checks at airports and train stations became the new norm as China strove Tuesday to control the outbreak of a new coronavirus that has reached four other countries and territories and threatens to spread further during the Lunar New Year travel rush. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

The World Health Organization will gather a panel of experts on coronavirus Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland, to determine whether a China-based outbreak constitutes an international public health emergency and how the outbreak can be managed.

China has reported 291 cases of the virus since December, most of them in the city of Wuhan. At least six deaths are blamed on the outbreak. The virus is spreading across China, and one case has been confirmed in Japan, two in Thailand and one in South Korea.

Many of the initial cases were linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, but Chinese health officials said this week that human-to-human transmission has been confirmed.

The Lunar New Year is Saturday, and officials are concerned that millions of holiday travelers across Asia will fuel spread of the disease.

"From a public health perspective, vigilance is necessary now," said Ogbonnaya Omenka, an assistant professor and public health specialist at Butler University's College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. "Community-led surveillance systems can be very effective in detecting – and nipping in the bud – infectious diseases."

WHO has published a range of interim guidance for all countries on how they can prepare for the virus, including how to monitor for sick people, test samples, treat patients and communicate risks to the public.

The disease is drawing intense attention because of its similarities to severe acute respiratory syndrome, a coronavirus that killed more than 600 people across mainland China and Hong Kong along with more than 100 other people around the world in 2002-2003.

Here's what to know about coronavirus:

What is coronavirus? What are the symptoms?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as pneumonia to Middle East respiratory syndrome, known as MERS, and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Common signs of infection include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death.

SOURCE Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; GRAPHIC Janet Loehrke/USA TODAY
SOURCE Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; GRAPHIC Janet Loehrke/USA TODAY

How is coronavirus similar to Ebola, MERS and SARS?

Coronaviruses, Ebola and SARS are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. Ebola was carried by fruit bats, which spread it to other animals. SARS was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS from camels to humans.

Should Americans be afraid of coronavirus?

"With global travel, the spread of any infectious disease is literally a plane ride away," says Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Customs and Border Protection began enhanced health screenings to detect travelers sickened by coronavirus coming into the United States from Wuhan. The screenings are taking place at airports in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. The CDC said it is monitoring coronavirus and the risk for spreading into the U.S.

Glatter, however, said perspective is important.

"It’s more likely that you would encounter the flu compared to the coronavirus," Glatter said. "It’s the flu and measles which pose a greater threat to the global community at this time."

Is coronavirus contagious? How is transmitted? 

The virus can be spread from animals to people. But it also can be spread by coughing, sneezing and through close contact with an infected person or an object carrying the virus.

Is there a coronavirus vaccine? What does treatment look like? 

There is no vaccine yet. Nine studies are examining coronavirus vaccine development.

And while there is no particular treatment for the coronavirus, recommended measures are similar to those for cold, such as rest and drinking a lot of fluid.

Related Photos
SOURCE Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; GRAPHIC Janet Loehrke/USA TODAY

SOURCE Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; GRAPHIC Janet Loehrke/USA TODAY

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-efa233778df468cdb2fc7afec7f6c5b5.jpg" alt="Photo - SOURCE Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; GRAPHIC Janet Loehrke/USA TODAY" title="SOURCE Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; GRAPHIC Janet Loehrke/USA TODAY"><figcaption>SOURCE Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; GRAPHIC Janet Loehrke/USA TODAY</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-a3112f5bed1da238b4ab9fb8536acd5d.jpg" alt="Photo - SOURCE ESRI ; CDC; USA TODAY" title="SOURCE ESRI ; CDC; USA TODAY"><figcaption>SOURCE ESRI ; CDC; USA TODAY</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-9993f111394d52370fb8b6e7039be748.jpg" alt="Photo - Travelers wear face masks as they wait their flight at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Face masks sold out and temperature checks at airports and train stations became the new norm as China strove Tuesday to control the outbreak of a new coronavirus that has reached four other countries and territories and threatens to spread further during the Lunar New Year travel rush. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)" title="Travelers wear face masks as they wait their flight at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Face masks sold out and temperature checks at airports and train stations became the new norm as China strove Tuesday to control the outbreak of a new coronavirus that has reached four other countries and territories and threatens to spread further during the Lunar New Year travel rush. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)"><figcaption>Travelers wear face masks as they wait their flight at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Face masks sold out and temperature checks at airports and train stations became the new norm as China strove Tuesday to control the outbreak of a new coronavirus that has reached four other countries and territories and threatens to spread further during the Lunar New Year travel rush. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)</figcaption></figure>
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