Following my recent ‘Pathogens which really scare me’, I’ve been asked by quite a few people about two that did not make the list. One is Ebola, and I’ll talk about that in a later post. The other, yes you guessed it, Coronavirus COVID-19.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am absolutely NOT saying we shouldn’t be concerned. The emergence of any new pathogen, for which there is no vaccine or herd immunity, has to be of concern to anyone who calls themselves a scientist. And in my case, I also need to be concerned because I am asthmatic, and any respiratory infection puts me at risk of serious illness. But there is a difference between sensible concern and the hysteria which certain elements of the media are trying to promote.
As of 28th February 2020, there are around 84,000 confirmed cases and 2,860 confirmed deaths worldwide from COVID-19. That’s a death rate of 3.4% according to the WHO. But in actual fact, the death rate may well be a lot lower; there’s a high probability that many people have had COVID-19 and experienced such mild symptoms that they do not need to seek medical attention and are never tested. All the evidence indicates that for healthy people with no underlying risk factors, COVID-19 would cause a mild illness from which they would make a full recovery.
What about those in high risk groups then? As I said earlier, I am asthmatic so potentially at risk from serious complications if I get COVID-19. So, why am I not worried? Basically because there are plenty of simple, sensible precautions I can take which will minimise my risk. If you are an asthmatic reading this, and are concerned about COVID-19, you couldn’t do better than to read the excellent advice given by Asthma UK at https://www.asthma.org.uk/about/media/news/Coronavirus/.
COVID-19 is a virus, which means that it cannot reproduce outside a host organism, and the virus particles do not survive long outside a host. This means that basic hygiene measures can do a lot to halt the spread of COVID-19. Grandma was right when she said that ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases’, and took you to task for not washing your hands. Covering your mouth when coughing, sneezing into a hanky (or the crook of your elbow if caught out without one) and washing your hands before meals and after going to the loo will do more to protect you than a mask. As a bonus, it will also significantly reduce your risk of other nasties such as colds, flu and Norovirus, any of which would massively increase your risk of serious complications if you caught COVID-19 while suffering/ recovering from them.
Another thing which helps protect me is that I’ve had my annual flu vaccine. What’s that got to do with it? Well, if you’ve had flu you will know how run-down it leaves you. During that recovery period, your immune system may be suppressed, leaving you at more risk of complications if you did get COVID-19. Last year I was unlucky enough to catch a strain of flu that the vaccine didn’t protect against. I was acutely ill with viral pneumonia for two weeks and it took a good couple of months for me to recover fully, during time which I would have been extremely vulnerable to complications if I had caught COVID-19. So does that mean the vaccine is useless? Absolutely not. last year I was unlucky, I just happened to be exposed to a strain of flu that the vaccine didn’t protect against. Getting my annual vaccine doesn’t entirely eliminate the risk of my getting flu, but it reduces it significantly.
Finally, I do everything I can to keep my asthma under control. Taking my preventer inhaler when I am well is a nuisance, but I do it. I monitor my symptoms and peak flow. I do my best to avoid triggers where I can, and if I get a cold or other respiratory infection, I double up on my preventer inhaler. I have a plan in place in case symptoms worsen.
Unfortunately, the media hysteria that I mentioned earlier may end up hindering people from taking basic precautions. A friend of mine posted on social media that it’s taken her several hours today to find a shop that had not sold out of hand gel. Ironically, the reason she was looking for hand gel was nothing to do with COVID-19. It was because she was getting ready to go to a ferret show, where using hand gel is an essential precaution against the spread of canine distemper – a pathogen that really does scare me (see my earlier post). A shortage of things like hand gel because people are stockpiling them may well increase the spread of colds, flu and Norovirus, any of which would make you more vulnerable to serious complications if you did get COVID-19.
My advice? Don’t ignore COVID-19, but don’t be misled by media panic. Take sensible precautions, as advised by the NHS at https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/. If you have a health condition that makes you particularly vulnerable, like asthma, the best thing you can do is ensure that you take all medication as prescribed, and contact your GP or other health practitioner if your symptoms get worse. Just the same as you would if you got flu, or a common cold.