A disease outbreak in China has the world’s health authorities on watch after cases of a newly-discovered coronavirus have reared up in a major Chinese city causing nearly 100 deaths. Here’s what you need to know and whether you should be worried.
Update: This article was originally published on 21 January 2020 and has since been updated to include the latest information.
What are coronaviruses?
Coronaviruses are a group of viruses, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), that can range from causing benign symptoms to more serious ones like the infamous SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) or MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Coronaviruses are transmitted from animals to people, called ‘zoonotic’, and can cause respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties in more mild cases. In the more severe instances, the virus can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
Where did this particular Coronavirus start?
WHO has identified this strain of coronavirus, novel coronavirus or nCoV, as potentially originating from a specific seafood market in Wuhan, a city in central China’s Hubei province. It’s significant because the city is a major transportation hub for the region and has direct flights to Sydney.
“The cluster was initially reported on 31 December 2019, when the WHO China Country Office was informed. The Chinese authorities identified a new type of coronavirus (novel coronavirus, nCoV), which was isolated on 7 January 2020. Laboratory testing was conducted on all suspected cases identified through active case finding and retrospective review,” WHO has said in a media release on 12 January 2020.
“According to the preliminary epidemiological investigation, most cases worked at or were handlers and frequent visitors to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.”
How does this coronavirus spread?
“Additional investigations are needed to determine how the patients were infected, whether human-to-human transmission has been observed, mode(s) of transmission, the clinical spectrum of disease, and the extent of infection, including presence of subclinical cases that are undetected with current surveillance,” the statement read.
BREAKING: WHO Director-General @DrTedros will convene an Emergency Committee on the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) under the International Health Regulations.— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 20, 2020
The Committee will meet on Wednesday, 22 January 2020. pic.twitter.com/w3w7ZuoTeG
On 21 January, the head of a Chinese government expert team told state media that human-to-human transmission had now been confirmed, According to AP, China’s National Health Commission said the virus had been transmitted between an infected person and their family members in the Guandong province of southern China on 20 January. Human-to-human transmission heightens the possibility of a more rapid spread of the virus.
Has Australia been affected by the coronavirus outbreak?
Australian authorities have reported, at the time of writing, there are five confirmed cases of coronavirus within the country with a number of other patients being tested for the virus. The first reported case was a Victorian man in his 50s on 25 January. He had returned to Australia after travelling from Wuhan to Melbourne via Guanzhou on 19 January. A further three cases were confirmed in NSW on 25 January.
Two days later, a fifth case was confirmed of a Sydney university student who had returned from the region before the travel bans were put in place. These NSW coronavirus patients are being treated at Westmead Hospital in Sydney’s west.
“Every flight from China now is being met by border security officers who are going on the plane and distributing information to every passenger trying to identify any unwell passengers. The airlines are also required to identify any unwell passengers and if they are unwell, there’s a process of screening them,” Australian Government’s Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy said in a media update on 27 January.
“Every passenger on those flights from China is given an information sheet in Mandarin and English and told to undertake, to watch themselves, and to contact their doctor or their emergency department should they develop symptoms over the following 14 days.”
Professor Murphy confirmed others around Australia were being tested, 11 in Melbourne alone, but said, as far as he was aware, there were no “highly probable” cases in the county. There were three direct flights a week from Wuhan to Sydney, but these have been cancelled and the Chinese government has locked down travel from the city. The method of transmission and how aggressively it can spread are still unknown at this stage, but Professor Murphy said there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission identified in Australia.
As of 24 January, WHO has continued to advise against implementing travel restrictions to Wuhan or the country, more generally, but DFAT’s Smartraveller site has advised Australians not to travel to the Hubei province where Wuhan is situated. It hasn’t cautioned against visiting other major cities where the virus has affected, including Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.
What preventative measures can I undertake to limit the risk of transmission?
While there are a limited amount of confirmed cases in Australia, it never hurts to undertake some small changes to ensure you can limit the chance of contracting the virus and any other nasties out there.
- Avoiding close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections;
- Frequent hand-washing, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment;
- Avoiding unprotected contact with farm or wild animals;
- People with symptoms of acute respiratory infection should practice cough etiquette (maintain distance, cover coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing, and wash hands);
- Within healthcare facilities, enhance standard infection prevention and control practices in hospitals, especially in emergency departments;
- WHO does not recommend any specific health measures for travelers. In case of symptoms suggestive of respiratory illness either during or after travel, the travelers are encouraged to seek medical attention and share their travel history with their health care provider. Travel guidance has been updated.
Those P2 masks that are great for bushfire smoke could potentially work as an extra barrier for blocking the disease so if you’ve already got one, pop it on when on public transport or in busy public places. If you’re the one not feeling well, do everyone a favour and ask to work from home or take the day off and see a doctor if symptoms persist or worsen. We’ve all got a part to play.
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