We sat down with Dr Kieran Kennedy to get an updated lay of land when it comes to the latest Coronavirus information, facts and myths flying around.
What is a Coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a specific family of virus that already caused infection in animals and humans. There are many different forms and as a family of viruses it’s a large one. Most Coronavirus types affect animals only however, rarely, genetic mutations allow viruses to ‘jump’ to humans. The viruses responsible for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) - both of which can cause severe infection and death - are forms of Coronavirus too.
Many people will likely have been infected with a Coronavirus at some point in their lives, as more benign forms are relatively common. The majority of these cause illness and symptoms in line with the common cold, but also cause chest infections and other respiratory illness. In severe cases Coronavirus infections can lead to significant pneumonia, acute respiratory shut down, spread of infection to other areas of the body, organ damage and even death.
What is this Coronavirus - COVID-19?
The recent outbreak of Coronavirus in China emerged as a new form that we haven’t seen before, with reports emerging on December 31 2019 of chest infections occurring in the Wuhan City, Hubei Province, in China from an unknown source. This new virus has since been named ‘COVID-19’. The exact source of COVID-19 is still unclear, but it appears most likely to have come from an animal source such as bats or (most recently investigated) a strange scaly looking animal called a Pangolin.
Even a few months into things, researchers and The World Health Organisation (WHO) are actively investigating and releasing updated information as it comes to light. We know more about the virus than we did before - but there’s still a lot of grey here.
Getting solid details about a new virus takes time, and is incredibly complex. Because of this however there can be a lot of speculation, tentative answers and misinformation circulating during times of outbreak. It’s common and understandable to feel a sense of anxiety, and even fear pr panic, around this. Grounding ourselves in facts and current consensus is key to avoiding this.
What’s the latest on how COVID-19 spreads, and how infectious actually is it?
As of March 2nd, the WHO outlines that there have been 88,948 confirmed cases worldwide. The vast majority of these have occurred in China, however 58 other countries now have identified cases. New Zealand has it’s first case, and Australia has a total of 33 confirmed infections. Worldwide we’re at just over 3,000 deaths due to the virus.
COVID-19 is largely a respiratory pathogen (airways, nasal passages and lung), and so we now know that spread from human to human occurs from respiratory droplets or airway secretions. Close personal contact is the most likely means of transmission. Inhalation of droplets from someone sneezing or coughing very close by can lead to spread, as could kissing or other close contact if airway secretions are exchanged. The virus does NOT appear to be readily spread just by touching someone, their breath/the air (unless airway droplets are exhaled) or by just being in someone’s vicinity. COVID-19 appears to be transmitted from secretions left on surfaces or objects, but how long it can survive outside the body and how easily this happens is still being confirmed. If we touch a contaminated surface or object then touch our eyes, nose, mouth or ingest food infection is possible. In areas of original outbreak, infection from animal sources is a potential risk. For Australia and NZ, it doesn’t appear that animal to human infection is occurring - and there is no evidence that transmission is occurring through pets or household animals at present.
Current data, and consensus from the WHO, is that COVID-19 is relatively easily spread between people. Comparatively, COVID-19 is more easily spread than SARS (for example) but likely less deadly/severe. Current data shows that the virus incubates without any symptoms for an average of 5 days (but up to 14). Most spread appears to occur when someone is already showing symptoms, and while it appears the virus can spread when people don’t show any symptoms further information is needed.
This can all sound pretty scary and anxiety provoking, so it’s important to know that ongoing research and investigation is being carried out as we speak. Cases have occurred in Australia and (in one instance) New Zealand since the virus emerged, however containment measures, infection rates and contact tracing currently mean infection risk here is very low right now. There’s every chance this could change, and it is likely however that infection rates on our shores will climb.
What are the symptoms and how dangerous is it?
Media reports of COVID-19 causing severe illness and even death are true BUT it’s important we know that the majority of infections cause milder symptoms like the common cold/flu such as fatigue, fever, cough, runny nose and generally feeling ill. In more severe infection, significant chest infections and related symptoms occur and symptoms here could include difficulty breathing, severe fever, significant coughing, and low blood pressure. Current estimates show that COVID-19 has a fatality (causing death) rate of around 2% - yes, this is much higher than the seasonal flu but it is less than other Coronavirus outbreaks we’ve seen such as SARS.
The elderly, and those with certain medical conditions (like chronic lung disease, diabetes, heart disease) are at increased risk of severe outcomes. Yes, younger healthy individual can also experience severe infections - but this is much less likely, and the vast majority infected appear to only suffer mild to moderate symptoms.
Can it be treated yet?
The vast majority of those infected with COVID-19 seem to suffer only mild to moderate symptoms, and treatment here is as for your usual cough/cold with rest, fluids and basic supports. More severe infection requires hospital attention, and sometimes support of breathing and other body functions. Antibiotics DON’T treat viral infections so make no difference to infection. At the moment there’s no vaccine for COVID-19 or specific treatment, however research here appears to be progressing along well and entering next phase of human trials soon.
If you’re experiencing mild signs of a cold/flu and need advice, most recommendations are to phone in through your local health service or Coronavirus advice line to check in on things rather than present in person. If you think you might have had contact with someone with potential for infection, or have returned from somewhere with high infection rates it’s vital to alert local health services and (unless really ill) stay at home. If at any time you or someone you know is experiencing severe symptoms like significant fever, trouble breathing or other signs of being really unwell then seeking out medical attention ASAP is needed.
What’s the update on how we avoid getting it?
Since the outbreak began, spread of the virus has led to a number of travel warnings and restrictions to areas of high infection rates. This is to try limit further global spread. Where possible avoiding unnecessary travel to areas of high infection is recommended, and keeping up to date with WHO and local health/travel recommendations around this is key.
There’s been a lot of talk (and a fair bit of panic too) around limiting risk of infection in everyday life, and masks have featured heavily here. Current recommendations are that we don’t generally need to be wearing protective masks in Australia or NZ. The WHO recommends face masks for those with symptoms of COVID-19 such as a cough or cold symptoms, or for those caring for/in close contact with someone with the infection. If you’re healthy, have no signs of infection yourself and aren’t directly in contact with someone who does then wearing a mask around town isn’t adding any increased protection at present. Masks can block respiratory droplets to reduce risk of infection, but might not block smaller aerosoled particles. It’s also key that masks are put on, worn and taken off correctly (to avoid touching your mouth/face and increasing risk for example) - so check this out online via the WHO website.
Far and away the most important current recommendation for limiting infection risk is solid hand hygiene. Washing hands regularly, and always before touching the face/mouth/eyes/nose, is vital. Washing hands before eating, or preparing, food is important too. Hands should be washed with a thick lather of soap or liquid soap/handwash with time taken to ensure the palms, back of the hands and fingers/thumbs are all got at. Coughing or sneezing should always be done into a tissue or elbow rather than onto hands or surfaces - and hands should be washed straight after either way.
If we’re unwell or it appears someone is unwell (I.e. coughing, sneezing) then limiting close personal contact with others can help limit spread. Generally avoiding close contact in these situations is recommended, but what we don’t need to be doing at the moment is steering clear of public areas or stockpiling supplies.
Should we believe everything we hear?
The simple answer here is no. Yes, things are concerning - but we shouldn’t let this lead to panic. A ‘pandemic’ refers to global spread of a new illness, but doesn’t equate to apocalyptic type visions often associated with the term. What we’re seeing is of real concern when we think about the impact to health systems and the potential for serious infection risks toward certain populations. But no one benefits from unevidenced myths being passed around or panic not supported by current facts.
First things first however - let’s be clear, no a Keto diet or buying Ketone supplements doesn’t protect us from the Coronavirus or cure it. Despite what that influencer might say, or what some video of a whiteboard and questionable science made out over the weekend - the medical consensus is that there is no evidence to back up these claims. Misinformation like this not only drives further fear and panic, but might be actively dangerous.
With all due respect to individual preferences and beliefs, herbal treatments and supplements haven’t been scientifically shown to reduce risk or treat Coronavirus. Some Coronavirus myths flying around lately have included not being able to touch or buy anything coming from China (or receive packages from China), that sesame oil or garlic protects from Coronavirus, that nasal rising protects from infection and that pets can possibly transmit the disease. To date, none of these claims have any backing. Race and ethnicity also have zero to do with COVID-19 infection, so any racial sentiments and fearmongering need to be (to put it politely) left at the door.
While it’s very likely that we’ll see rates climb here in Australia and NZ, it is important we curb anxiety by remembering that rates are currently low. Alongside, the risk of the average person on our shores being infected at present remain low. Some less than responsible media headlines have done little to help curb anxiety, and haven’t been clear around the facts. We need to keep a close watch on things, but we don’t need to be avoiding going out or keeping a wide berth of people on the street.
How do we limit anxiety and panic?
Concerning images coming from overseas, crashing stock markets and whispers of the word ‘pandemic’ around the water cooler can be (understandably) incredibly anxiety provoking, and that’s something that a lot of us are feeling right now. Being alert and concerned is in our best interest, but panicking and getting whipped up in media or online fear-mongering isn’t.
While the WHO has increased concern around the virus to it’s highest level of rating, and Australia has actioned emergency procedures - these moves don’t necessarily relate to current acute risks for the majority of us. All these instances are at present geared around being prepared and ready to limit further spread, keep people safe and support services should infections and presentations to health services increase. It shouldn’t be leading us to presently feel that panic outside of the facts is needed.
We can limit fear and anxiety around what’s happening by staying grounded in reputable and evidence based sources like WHO, the CDC and your local health department advice and updates. Australia has a Coronvirus advice helpline – 1800 020 080, and for NZ info is available on 0800 358 5453. Stay up to date, but limit the online worm holes where unevidenced opinions and questionable predictions are often rife. If people without medical credentials or related expertise are talking about the virus, suggesting risks or (worst of all) suggesting treatments (especially online or over social media) then advice would be to politely scroll on or look the other way. If anxiety is creeping in then talk it out with someone close, take a break from the media newsfeed and invest in some things that bring the alarm bells down for you. Exercise, good sleep and some mindfulness can all help.
Look after your health as you would generally, and keep in mind that sticking to the basics around hand hygiene is the biggie here in Australia right now.