The Year of the Rat has dawned in Asia in most inauspicious fashion, with public health officials grappling with an exploding viral outbreak centered in China.
Tens of millions of Chinese have been locked down in what officials are saying may be one of the largest health quarantines of its kinds, occurring during Asia’s major New Year holiday. Authorities in Beijing report dozens of deaths and hundreds of cases of what officials have called a novel coronavirus (officially, for now, the 2019-nCoV).
It has sickened or killed most of its victims in central China, in and around the city of Wuhan. The afflicted suffer a pneumonia-like illness, and medical scientists say that advances in genetics have allowed them to study the virus with unprecedented speed and accuracy.
These new capacities may offer a glimmer of hope in dealing with, and even relatively quickly crafting a vaccine against, this current virus, which the Washington Post reported bears “a striking resemblance to that of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the 2002 viral outbreak that sickened more than 8,000 people and killed nearly 800.”
Cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in recent travelers in Washington state, the Chicago area, and in Southern California, with dozens of other suspicious illnesses under investigation. The illness’s spread also has been reported in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, Nepal, France, and Australia. Hong Kong authorities have shut schools and begun protective measures.
Besides shutting down much of the country’s internal transportation systems and forbidding travel, especially in the nation’s central area, China has begun to restrict overseas travel of its people, particularly in popular tour groups.
U.S. officials launched special health screenings at airports in Newark, N.J., San Francisco, and Los Angeles, later adding Chicago and Atlanta. These are facilities that typically receive travelers from Wuhan and central China. Passengers are screened about their travel and their health, including if they have a fever indicative of possible viral infection.
The World Health Organization has said the coronavirus outbreak must be taken seriously and dealt with, with urgency. But the influential world health body declined to declare a global emergency — for now.
U.S. public health officials have not disagreed, and authorities have not yet termed the outbreak a pandemic.
The widespread illness has prompted experts in epidemics and public health to remind the public that another viral-borne sickness is ravaging the planet — and there are steps individuals can take to protect themselves from this disease and the coronavirus, which gets its name from the concentric spikes on its exterior.
That other illness, of course, is the seasonal flu.
And, as the Kaiser Health News Service reported, to keep in perspective the toll from the respective infections:
“Influenza has already sickened at least 13 million Americans this winter, hospitalizing 120,000 and killing 6,600, according to the CDC. And flu season hasn’t even peaked. In a bad year, the flu kills up to 61,000 Americans. Worldwide, the flu causes up to 5 million cases of severe illness worldwide and kills up to 650,000 people every year, according to the World Health Organization.”
The news article also provides a contrast and comparison between much publicized outbreaks of the lethal, hemorrhagic disease Ebola and the more common but less discussed measles:
“Measles in the Democratic Republic of Congo has killed 5,000 people in the past year – more than twice as many as Ebola. Yet UNICEF officials have noted that the measles, which many Americans no longer fear, has gotten little attention. Nearly all the measles victims were children under 5.”
To be sure, large-scale infectious outbreaks cannot be over- or under-estimated, and members of the global public need to know and to act with gravity against pandemics, whether caused by a novel virus or strains of the flu. History reminds that:
“The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the deadliest in history, infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide — about one-third of the planet’s population — and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims, including some 675,000 Americans.”
Vaccinations, including that annual flu shot, always matter. As with all medical procedures, inoculations carry risks. But these are far outweighed by their benefits, especially the “herd immunity,” the wide protection of the many, that can occur if high percentages of populations get their recommended shots.
The inoculations, notably for the seasonal flu, may vary in their effectiveness. But for children, seniors, and those with compromised immune systems it is like making a big and bad bet in a casino (where the house always wins) to forego whatever possible and additional safeguard vaccinations provide.
Vaccination is not only an important way most of us can maintain our well-being to fight off infections, recent research has found that the common disease of measles, when contracted by those without immunization, has a surprising, sustained harm. It may cause “immunity amnesia,” wiping out the body’s protective systems against other infections.
To stay as healthy as possible, of course, common sense, experience, and research all focus on key elements. Eat in a healthful way and control your weight and consumption of alcohol and other intoxicants. Don’t smoke or vape. Keep moving, especially with vigorous exercise, if you can. Get plenty of rest and sleep and try to minimize your stress.
If you’ve got a cough or are sneezing, please cover up. Wash your hands, often and thoroughly. If you or your family members are sick, please stay home. Don’t be a hypochondriac and rush to your doctor for every sniffle. Don’t demand antibiotics for every ache in your throat or ear (ditto for the kids!), especially if your doctor tells you the cause is viral, not bacterial. If you’ve got a spiking fever or an uncontrolled cough (especially if it keeps you from sleeping, talking, or if it includes a rattle), head to your doctor’s office or for urgent care. Don’t wait until the middle of the night, or when you’re deep in distress.
In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and the benefits that can gain by staying health and far from the U.S. health care system. It has its own serious problems with medical error, preventable hospital acquired illnesses and deaths, and misdiagnoses. That said, excellent doctors, nurses, and hospitals can offer life changing and saving treatment and they provide the front-line medical defense, if and when pandemics occur.
Here’s hoping that the authorities can contain the outbreak of coronavirus and rapidly break into its mysteries to find ways to vaccinate against it or to kill it, fast. The world, in the meantime, will need to keep a wary eye on yet another dangerous challenge to our health.