- A coronavirus outbreak has caused thousands of illnesses worldwide and nearly 200 deaths in China.
- The CDC has confirmed six official cases of coronavirus in the United States. All but one patient had recently traveled to Wuhan, China.
- Doctors explain what you need to know about the illness, its symptoms, and how worried you should be.
A novel coronavirus outbreak has caused thousands of illness worldwide and 170 deaths in China. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed six official cases within the United States, a number that is predicted to rise. All but one U.S. patient had recently traveled to Wuhan, China—the center of the outbreak.
A man returning to Washington state from Wuhan was the first to be diagnosed with the novel coronavirus last week. A second infection was diagnosed in a Chicago woman, who then passed the illness on to her husband—marking the country’s first case of person-to-person transmission. Three other travelers in California and Arizona have also tested positive. U.S. health officials are currently monitoring more than 100 pending cases across 36 states.
This novel coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV or the Wuhan coronavirus, was originally thought to spread from animals to people, “but person-to-person spread of 2019-nCoV is occurring,” the CDC says.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared an international public health emergency, and a growing number of cases continues to reach new countries. So, should you be worried? Here, everything you need to know about coronavirus, its symptoms, and what experts think about its potential impact within the U.S.
What is coronavirus, exactly?
Human coronavirus is pretty common throughout the world, according to the CDC. There are seven different types that scientists know of, and many of them cause colds, says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. However, two newer types—MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV—can cause severe illness.
The form of coronavirus that’s making headlines was only recently found to infect people, Dr. Adalja explains, which is why it’s referred to as a novel coronavirus. “A novel coronavirus (CoV) is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified,” the CDC explains.
“There is a race to determine what this coronavirus is, and whether it behaves more like a SARS, MERS, or a common cold virus. A lot of efforts are being made to answer this,” Dr. Adalja says.
How did the outbreak start? And how does coronavirus spread?
Scientists believe this novel coronavirus outbreak may have originated from a “wet market” that sold live fish, meat, and wild animals in Wuhan. After analyzing protein codes from coronaviruses found in various animals—like birds, snakes, hedgehogs, bats, and humans—researchers found that the protein codes in 2019-nCoV aligned most closely with those in snakes, per CNN.
However, they suspect 2019-nCoV stemmed from bats originally, which were then eaten by snakes. It is believed that snakes were sold at the market in Wuhan, but the origin of the virus is not yet confirmed. It is also unclear how 2019-nCoV could thrive in both animals and humans, suggesting that it may have mutated.
The CDC says coronaviruses most commonly spread from an infected person to others through the air by coughing or sneezing, close contact such as touching or shaking hands, or by touching a surface contaminated with the virus and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes prior to hand washing. New evidence from Germany also suggests that a person infected with 2019-nCoV may be able to spread the virus before they exhibit symptoms.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
The WHO says people “are presenting with a wide range of symptoms,” but they are really similar to symptoms of the flu. People with coronavirus may have a runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat, fever, and generally feel sick, the CDC says. Coronavirus can also cause lower-respiratory tract infections like pneumonia or bronchitis.
The overlap with flu symptoms “makes coronavirus difficult to diagnose,” Dr. Adalja says, adding that the average person can’t tell the difference between the two. And, it’s possible for some people to have no symptoms at all.
People can die from coronavirus when they develop complications like respiratory failure or hypoxia (a condition where your body doesn’t get enough oxygen) secondary to pneumonia, Dr. Adalja says. Some people have also experienced myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart, he adds. People who are immunocompromised, the very young, and the elderly are the most at risk of serious complications of coronavirus, the CDC says.
How is coronavirus treated?
As of now, there’s no specific treatment or cure for coronavirus, says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Instead, doctors are treating the symptoms and offering supportive care.
How worried should you be about coronavirus?
Thousands of people, mainly in China, have been infected with coronavirus and hospitalized, and it’s a little scary that it’s now in the U.S. However, experts emphasize that you shouldn’t panic—just be aware of the virus and its symptoms.
Infectious disease doctors and public health officials are “very aware” of coronavirus around the country, Dr. Schaffner says, and have implemented steps where patients with respiratory symptoms who recently traveled to China (or had contact with someone who traveled to China) are now being screened for symptoms of the virus.
People coming through 20 different airports in the U.S. are also undergoing enhanced health screening for coronavirus, which can help detect cases early. If someone is found to be sick, CDC officials will evaluate the individual further to see if they should be taken to a hospital for medical evaluation and to get care as needed. Currently, people who test positive for 2019-nCoV are being quarantined.
“This is a serious public health threat,” the CDC states, but “for the general American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV is considered low.”
While the U.S. has a small number of confirmed cases, “they’re pretty well contained,” Dr. Adalja says. “But we can expect more.” He stresses that “contacts of the patients are being monitored.”
To steer clear of any possible infection (especially because we are in the midst of flu season), he suggests practicing good hand hygiene and avoiding close contact with people who appear to be sick. The CDC also recommends avoiding all nonessential travel to China.
This story is developing and was last updated at 12:00 p.m. EST on January 31. It will be updated as new information is confirmed.
You Might Also Like