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Prescott: China acts to stop spread of respiratory virus

 Stephen Prescott, M.D.
Stephen Prescott, M.D.

Why has China locked down an area of 20 million people?

Health authorities believe that a new form of respiratory virus originated in December in Wuhan, a city in central China with a population larger than New York. At first thought only to spread from animals to people, the virus now seems to be jumping from human to human.

It’s not clear when Chinese authorities first realized this was happening, but the number of reported infections has mushroomed, from 45 cases 10 days ago to more than 700 only a week later.

After initially moving slowly to contain the outbreak, the Chinese government took dramatic steps when it halted outbound flights and trains to Wuhan and also shut the city’s public transportation system on Thursday. The measures, later expanded to add five surrounding cities, are aimed at trying to contain the spread of the virus.

The question is whether they’re too late.

How did the outbreak start?

Researchers aren’t sure, but they suspect that like the 2003-2004 outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), it originated in animals. Here, scientists believe that the virus made the leap to humans in a meat and seafood market in Wuhan.

The virus belongs to a family of viruses called coronaviruses, which get their name from the crown-like protein spikes on their surfaces. Typically, they affect only animals. But when they mutate, which they can do easily, they can gain the ability to infect humans — and then pass from one person to another.

How is the virus transmitted?

Like most viruses, it seems to spread through saliva. That means you can get it through coughing, kissing or contact with saliva on surfaces like doorknobs and railings.

What are the symptoms?

The virus seems to cause pneumonia-like symptoms: fever, coughing and respiratory distress.

How dangerous is it?

Early figures suggest that it’s less deadly than SARS, which claimed the lives of about 10% of those infected. Through the first 700 or so cases, the Wuhan virus has carried a mortality rate of about 3%.

How does this compare to flu?

In the U.S., flu typically infects tens of millions of Americans and kills somewhere between 12,000 and 56,000. In 2017-2018, the most recent severe season, the flu infected an estimated 45 million Americans and caused 80,000 deaths, a mortality rate of about 2%.

So, this new virus looks like it carries about the same lethality as a bad flu, though the total numbers of influenza cases in a typical year (and, thus, deaths) dwarf what we’ve seen to date with the Wuhan virus.

Like the flu, the new virus appears deadliest in older people, especially those with other health issues. Many, but not all, of those who have died from the Wuhan virus were over the age of 60 and had existing illnesses that may have lessened their chances of survival.

Also, many did not receive treatment until their illness had progressed significantly.

Has the virus spread to the U.S.?

The first U.S. case was reported earlier this week in Washington State by a man who’d traveled to the Wuhan region. On Thursday, Texas health officials identified a second suspected case, again in a traveler who’d recently returned from Wuhan. Both are receiving treatment while being kept isolated.

Health authorities are monitoring people who’ve come in close contact with these patients. Still, they expect to see more cases in the U.S., and major airports have begun screening arriving international travelers for fever.

What precautions should travelers take?

If possible, avoid travel to China and other Asian countries until health authorities have a handle on the outbreak. Other than that, traveling should be fine, so long as you take the typical precautions: Keep your hands away from your mouth, eyes and nose; wash or sanitize your hands frequently; and do your best to steer clear of anyone who appears sick.

A physician and medical researcher, Prescott is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and can be reached at omrf-president@omrf.org.

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