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The coronavirus outbreak in context

Is it time to panic?

By Ania Szmyd-Potapczuk

, |

The coronavirus outbreak in context

Is it time to panic?

By Ania Szmyd-Potapczuk

, |

The coronavirus outbreak has been making headlines worldwide as a potential new pandemic. But before you start panicking and cancelling your travel plans, here’s a summary of what you need to know about the current situation and what you can do to protect yourself.

The current situation

The most recent WHO report tracking the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) has reported a total of 93 090 confirmed cases globally, with the majority of these cases occurring in China. There have been 12 668 cases confirmed outside of China. In total, there have been 2984 deaths from the virus in China and 214 deaths from the rest of the world.

To date, there have been one case reported in South Africa. The National Institute of Communicable Diseases is working with the WHO and Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor the outbreak situation in South Africa. The NICD and National Department of Health are using this time to step up control measures and emergency preparedness in case this virus spreads to South Africa in the near future.

How the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak compares to previous epidemics

Typically, coronavirus infection causes mild respiratory symptoms similar to that of the common cold. COVID-19, along with the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), differ from regular coronavirus infections because they cause serious disease that can be fatal in the young and elderly.

The current fatality rate of COVID-19 is 3.1%. In comparison, SARS had a fatality rate of 9.6%, while MERS had a fatality rate of 34.4%. What makes the COVID-19 outbreak so concerning, though, is the sheer speed at which it’s spreading. The SARS outbreak only had 8,437 reported cases, while COVID-19 has already exceeded 93 000 confirmed cases.

But don’t forget about other ongoing pandemics

With COVID-19 receiving so much attention, it’s easy to forget about existing pandemics that are just quietly carrying on in the background, killing millions of people. The Aids pandemic is still ongoing, and has claimed the lives of more than 32 million people since the start of the outbreak. Approximately 3.9% of the African population is living with HIV. Haiti is still busy recovering from a nine-year-long cholera outbreak that claimed the lives of 10,000 people. The common, everyday flu – that many people don’t bother vaccinating against – infects millions of people and causes tens of thousands of deaths annually, particularly in children and the elderly. And tuberculosis (TB) kills more people worldwide than any other single infection. In 2018, 10 million people were infected with TB, and 1.5 million people died.

So what makes this new COVID-19 outbreak so scary? Renowned science journalist Sonia Shah opines that one reason for the consternation is because the virus is brand-new. Other scientists are noting that many of the ‘big’ epidemics of recent years have come from animal-human transmission, which is largely due to habitat loss of endemic animal species, and intensive farming. As we encroach on previously unsettled habitats, we expose ourselves to diseases that would otherwise have remained inaccessible to humans, and workers in intensive farms are constantly exposed to the blood, urine and faeces of animals that are crowded together.

What can you do to protect yourself

With COVID-19 having reached South African shores, you should start implementing good hygiene practices to protect yourself and others from a wide variety of respiratory diseases, such as:

  • Wash your hands often, using an alcohol-based rub.
  • Keep at least one metre between you and other people.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Seek medical care if you have fever, cough or difficulty breathing and have travelled or know someone who has recently travelled to China.
  • Practise respiratory hygiene, such as covering your nose and mouth while coughing or sneezing. Use a tissue or the crook of your elbow to cover your mouth. Don’t use your hand, since you can contaminate everything you touch afterwards.

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