Coronavirus: What you should know

Hakim Hayat

As anxiety mounts worldwide over a novel coronavirus that started last month in Wuhan, a central Chinese city, the virus has spread across China and to at least 15 other countries, including neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.

In view of the seriousness of the situation and in a bid to arrest the spread of this virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) has come out with some basic guidelines, including the stepping up of hygienic measures, and avoiding affected countries.

In China, fatalities from the pneumonia-inducing virus hit the 170 mark yesterday and more than 7,700 cases confirmed, leading to an unprecedented lockdown of tens of millions of people in affected areas.

While there have been no deaths reported outside China so far, Brunei fortunately has not seen a single case of the virus and lastweek, a Chinese traveller who was quarantined for showing flu symptoms was cleared of the virus following checks by the Ministry of Health (MoH).

Alarm over domestic transmission grew when the third and fourth confirmed patients – both of whom travelled directly from Wuhan – presented no outward symptoms at the time of arrival, and passed through the airport thermal screening without detection.

People leave after buying face masks at a pharmacy in Seoul, South Korea. PHOTO: AP

China’s National Health Commission said last Sunday that asymptomatic spread of the virus was possible during the incubation period, which is believed to be up to 14 days. As the virus is new, there is currently no vaccine or cure, with many questions waiting to be answered.

The following are what health authorities and experts say about the Wuhan coronavirus, and simple precautionary steps to reduce the risk of contraction and transmission.

What do you need to know about the coronavirus?

The new flu-like virus, 2019-nCoV, is a coronavirus, a family of pathogens that causes respiratory illness, according to the WHO. There are now seven known types of coronaviruses, ranging widely in severity from the common cold to more lethal strains such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), or Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

What are the symptoms?

In mild or moderate cases of the coronavirus, symptoms are similar to a cold or the flu – runny nose, coughing, sore throat, fever and muscle pain or fatigue. In patients with weakened immune systems, it can cause lower-respiratory tract illnesses such as pneumonia and respiratory failure. The WHO situation report released last Tuesday said about 20 per cent of those infected fell severely ill.

How is the virus transmitted, and how contagious is it?

Since its outbreak at the end last December, the number of confirmed patients has risen to nearly 6,000 globally, and the number of suspected patients is even higher.

The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it is mainly spread through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, much like how other respiratory pathogens are spread. The possibility of airborne transmission is not yet clear.

Is it deadly?

Figures provided by Chinese authorities show the virus’ fatality rate is about two to three per cent. As there is no antiviral therapy for this particular virus, treatment efforts are largely supportive. The viral pneumonia may leave permanent lung damage, in more severe cases.

How can we avoid contracting the virus?

According to a health advisory issued by the MoH, hygiene is key, such as the regular washing of hands with water and soap, using masks during a bout of cold or flu, covering the mouth with tissue while coughing or sneezing, and disposing of soiled tissues after use. As a precautionary measure, the public is advised to avoid contact with sick livestock and poultry as well as consuming raw or improperly cooked meat.

Coughing etiquette also matters. When coughing or sneezing, your mouth and nose should be covered with a tissue or your upper sleeve, not your hands. Although some medical journals such as the International Journal of Infectious Diseases report debate the effects of masks, they are said to help limit exposure to and transmission of the virus. The report advises masks should not be worn more than once or twice, and they should be discarded with caution.

What to do if you feel that you have the symptoms?

The MoH has urged those who develop symptoms to seek treatment if feeling unwell and to avoid direct contact with those who display symptoms.

In its recent press release, the ministry said it will continue to maintain high levels of preparedness and work closely with the WHO, as well as other countries in the region, to control the situation.

The ministry also said that among the steps taken are to re-introduce the use of body temperature checks for passengers arriving in the country via Brunei International Airport, particularly from cities in China, starting on January 21, improved implementation of the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in government clinics and hospitals, and ongoing monitoring and risk assessment of the condition of the infection worldwide.