A rapidly evolving health story broke in late December when a novel illness originating in Wuhan, China made the news. Reports of the number of infected people swiftly rose, and isolated cases of this new coronavirus dubbed 2019-nCoV by scientists have appeared in several countries due to international travel. At this writing, almost 1,300 confirmed cases and over 40 deaths have occurred in China, according to an article in the New York Times.
Fortunately, public health officials in many countries, including the US, have put measures in place to help prevent further spread of the virus. These measures include health screenings at major airports in the US for people traveling from Wuhan. In China, travel restrictions are in effect.
With information changing so quickly and every news report about the virus seeming to raise the stakes, you may be wondering how worried you should be. Here’s a primer on what we do and don’t know about this virus and what it may mean for you. While there is much we don’t yet understand about the virus, public health officials, medical experts, and scientists are working in collaboration to learn more.
What is a coronavirus?
coronaviruses are an extremely common cause of colds and other upper respiratory infections. These viruses are zoonoses, which means they can infect certain animals and spread from one animal to another. A coronavirus can potentially spread to humans, particularly if certain mutations in the virus occur.
Chinese health authorities reported a group of cases of viral pneumonia to the World Health Organization (WHO) in late December 2019. Many of the ill people had contact with a seafood and animal market in Wuhan, a large city in eastern China, though it has since become clear that the virus can spread from person to person.
What are the symptoms of this coronavirus?
The symptoms can include a cough, possibly with a fever and shortness of breath. There are some early reports of non-respiratory symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Many people recover within a few days. However, some people especially the very young, elderly, or people who have a weakened immune system may develop a more serious infection, such as bronchitis or pneumonia.
How is it treated?
Scientists are working hard to understand the virus, and Chinese health authorities have posted their full genome in international databases. Currently, there are no approved antivirals for this particular coronavirus, so treatment is supportive. For the sickest patients with this illness, specialized, aggressive care in an intensive care unit (ICU) can be lifesaving.
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