Public health organizations around the globe are closely monitoring the progress of a newly identified virus, 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), first isolated from pneumonia patients in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
This outbreak acquired greater local interest last week when the infection was confirmed in a man in Snohomish County who had recently returned from Wuhan. He was admitted for observation only and is doing well. His contacts have been identified and are being closely monitored.
Additional scattered cases have been confirmed elsewhere within the United States. Contacts of those individuals are likewise being monitored for signs and symptoms of the infection.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is reporting on its website that “the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general American public is considered low at this time.”
The coronavirus family includes many viruses that cause the common cold, but also include the more serious SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past two decades. SARS originated in China and killed nearly 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003, but has not been observed since 2004. These past outbreaks have required complex, multinational public health responses.
The new coronavirus outbreak is receiving so much attention partly because so little is known about how it will behave in the affected populations. Careful study by public health agencies is starting to clarify variables such as how the virus spreads, how long the virus incubates before causing illness and how likely exposed individuals are to develop illness.
Effective containment of outbreaks depends on the recognition of infection and the availability of treatment and/or prevention. Antibiotics are not effective in treating viral infections. There is currently no vaccine that is effective for protecting against 2019-nCoV.
With our island’s close proximity to major ports of international entry, and with many residents who travel internationally, the possibility of an outbreak of an infection such as 2019-nCoV is a reasonable concern. Much remains unknown about the behavior of this new virus. Our public health agencies on the international, national and local levels will continue to monitor the progress of this outbreak. Let us remain vigilant and informed as new information becomes available.
Additionally, let us not forget that influenza is already active in our communities. The Department of Health currently reports the deaths of 38 adults and four children in Washington so far this season.
The CDC emphasizes the following measures to minimize the chance of acquiring and spreading any type of respiratory infection:
• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
• Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw the tissue in the trash and wash your hands.
• Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces.
• Stay at home away from others if you are sick.
By following these guidelines, not only do we keep ourselves healthy and our families are less likely to become sick, but we also help protect the more vulnerable individuals in our community from becoming exposed to these illnesses.
Jeffrey T. HansPetersen is an island physician.