On December 31, many people around the world were rejoicing on New Year’s Eve. But the World Health Organization (WHO) had a more serious agenda.
It was busy announcing ominous news. WHO revealed the outbreak of a mysterious virus. A new epidemic causing hundreds of people to become sick with pneumonia or flu-like symptoms in China and elsewhere. At least six of whom died.
It’s called the coronavirus and it first appeared in mid-December. Health officials have thought it was only spread to humans by animals they ate.
But that assumption may change now that a 61-year-old woman from China was diagnosed with the virus. As well as a Tokyo man in his 30s. And just the other day, a Washington state man in his 30s.
Food Market Is Ground Zero
A food market in Wuhan, China has been linked to the virus. It’s the Huanan South China Seafood Market.
Before the three new victims got the virus, all the patients were staff or purchasers at that market.
But none of these three people visited that particular market. So, the fear now is that it may be transmitted from human to human. Or possibly from animals to humans, but involving additional food markets.
Concerns that the disease might be spreading have kept health officials occupied. A U.S. biotech group is working on a vaccine for the virus.
An International Concern?
Health officials are scrambling to get this figured out. They want to know if the outbreak is serious enough to constitute a “public health emergency of international concern.”
That’s the designation WHO gives to diseases that pose a global threat.
The woman is now recovering at the Bamrasnaradura Infectious Diseases Institute outside Bangkok.
The American is being kept in isolation in a hospital outside Seattle. Last week President Donald Trump said, “We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
Memories of SARS, MERS Resurfacing
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory illness. It spread to some 25 countries before being contained.
SARS infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774. This new disease is being compared to SARS by health officials.
There’s another disease being compared to the new virus. It’s Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
This viral respiratory illness first appeared in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. Since then it has spread to several other countries. More than one-third of those diagnosed with it die.
Fever and Difficult Breathing
Vincent Munster is an emerging viral diseases researcher. He works at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
He says there are “tons of coronaviruses.” Most of them are only attached to animals, including bats and camels.
SARS and MERS, however, can cause severe pneumonia and even death among humans. Other coronaviruses lead to more mild symptoms. Such as what is seen with the common cold.
With the new virus, symptoms are fever and difficult breathing. Patients can have lesions in both lungs.
Temperature Screenings at Airports
One way health officials are dealing with the problem is conducting temperature screenings. In the U.S., it’s being done at airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. Other airports including those in Atlanta and Chicago are sure to follow.
Health officials in Taiwan asked airport quarantine officials for help. They want notification of patients showing symptoms.
Approximately 60,000 to 65,000 people travel from Wuhan to the U.S. each year.
Some 100 experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been sent to the U.S. airports.
They are asking travelers to fill out questionnaires regarding symptoms they might have. And whether they have visited meat and seafood markets in Wuhan.
Flu Season Could Confuse Things
CDC personnel are using thermal scanners pointed at the forehead or temple of passengers. Those with signs of illness will be sent to local hospitals for additional testing.
Results of the testing will also be provided to hospitals and state health departments. It’s estimated they will end up testing about 5,000 passengers.
One factor is making it challenging to determine who has this new virus and who doesn’t. It’s flu season here in the U.S.
Someone getting off a plane from Wuhan could be having flu-like symptoms, but not have the new virus.
‘A Serious Situation’
But American health officials are not taking any chances. No one knows for sure whether the virus can spread from person to person. But Chinese health officials are concluding that it can.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier is the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Here’s what she says.
“It doesn’t take much for a virus in general to go from being worrisome to being extremely worrisome. Because they tend to morph and mutate a lot.
“This is a serious situation. We know it is crucial to be proactive and prepared.”
‘A Significant Concern’
What if it’s determined that the new virus is spreading from human to human? Then “the scope of this outbreak expands massively,” Daszak said.
The death of even one patient “marks this virus as a significant concern. We don’t know where the virus came from. We don’t know the geographic origin of the wildlife reservoir.”
Both SARS and MERS proved to be deadly diseases affecting many people. Let’s hope this new virus does not follow the same path.