You’ve probably heard by now that there’s a new disease out there that, like SARS and swine flu before it, is causing a lot of panic. Here’s what you need to know about the situation to hopefully sleep a little bit sounder at night.
The outbreak is a respiratory illness caused by a new coronavirus labeled 2019-nCoV. Coronaviruses are very common, and most people are infected by them at some point in their life. They usually cause symptoms typical of the common cold, though more serious illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis are also possible.
Unfortunately, 2019-nCoV is a novel coronavirus that can cause more severe symptoms akin to MERS and SARS, two previous coronavirus outbreaks. Some people have had relatively mild cases while others suffered from more severe respiratory symptoms including pneumonia.
It originated in Wuhan, a sprawling city in China’s Hubei province, and has spread to Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, and Taiwan. Additionally, two people have been diagnosed in the United States, one in Washington state and one in Chicago. Officials expect more cases to be confirmed soon, as 62 people in 22 states are suspected of having the illness.
By comparison, the CDC estimates that there have been 6,600 deaths from influenza during the 2019-2020 flu season. So, you should be much more worried about the flu. But still.
While its origins suggest animal-to-person transmission at a large market in Wuhan, later cases show that it’s being spread person-to-person. The CDC thinks it’s due to the expulsion of respiratory droplets through coughing and sneezing.
The agency considers 2019-nCoV a “very serious public health threat,” but also says that “the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general American public is considered low at this time.” Essentially, the virus is still pretty well confined to China, which has instituted a broad travel ban, and there aren’t enough cases in this country to qualify as a public health emergency.
That doesn’t mean precautions aren’t being taken. The agency is currently recommending avoiding travel to Wuhan, and it’s conducting entry screening of passengers on direct and connecting flights from the city to airports in five major U.S. cities (Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco). About 2,000 travelers have been screened this way, and no cases of the virus were found.
The bottom line is that if you’ve traveled to Wuhan within the past two weeks and develop respiratory symptoms you should seek medical care immediately, calling ahead before going to any facility. If you haven’t been anywhere near Wuhan, then any symptoms you have are probably the result of something else.