Should South Africans be concerned about the coronavirus outbreak?

Picture: iStock

The virus can cause severe respiratory difficulties, and lead to pneumonia, sepsis and even organ failure in severe cases.

The ongoing spread of the coronavirus across China and other parts of the world has raised global concern.

This has left many South Africans wondering if they are at risk locally and how best they can keep themselves safe from possible infection, particularly while travelling internationally.

Dr Pete Vincent of Netcare Travel Clinics and Medicross Tokai says that while the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the new coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency, people should not be unduly alarmed, particularly as no cases have been reported in South Africa as of 31 January.

However, he strongly recommends that everyone, especially those travelling internationally, take precautions against contracting the illness and that non-essential travel to China be postponed at this time.

The WHO indicates that the majority of coronavirus cases have been reported in the Hubei province in China where the outbreak started and has been linked to a seafood, poultry and live wildlife market, known as the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

A number of confirmed cases have been reported in a number of countries around the world including Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, India, the Philippines, the USA, Germany, Italy, Finland and France.

A passenger wearing a face mask holds a health advisory card upon arrival at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Picture: AFP / Mohd Rasfan

Primary transmission

“While human-to-human transmission of the virus has been reported, it would seem that animal-to-human transmission remains the primary mode for the spreading of the virus,” said Vincent.

“However, the fact that some people appear to suffer only mild illness as a result of infection, while others have become severely sick, has made it difficult for global health authorities to establish the exact extent to which the virus is being passed between people at this time and even the true numbers of people who may have been infected.

“In addition, there are concerns that the virus could become more contagious than it currently appears to be, and global and local health surveillance agencies including the National Institute of Communicable Diseases and South African department of health in South Africa, therefore, remain vigilant,” he added.

Signs and symptoms

Those who have fallen ill from the coronavirus reportedly suffer coughs, fever and breathing problems. The virus can cause severe respiratory difficulties, and lead to pneumonia, sepsis and even organ failure in severe cases.

As is the case with other viral infections, antibiotics are not an effective means of treatment and people who are in poor health are at greatest risk of complications from the infection.

The WHO reports that the current estimates of the incubation period of the virus range from two to ten days.

Picture: iStock

Protecting yourself

“Those who have recently travelled, or are planning to travel, to international destinations such as the Far East should be particularly vigilant.

“As in the case of other airborne infectious viruses such as influenza, avoiding contact with people showing symptoms and washing your hands frequently can go a long way towards protecting individuals from contracting an infection,” he advises.

The following simple precautions can help reduce exposure to and transmission of the virus:

● Wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap, towel drying them properly. An alcohol-based hand rub can also be used.

● Avoid close contact with others who have coughs, chest infections and/or fevers.

● Avoid touching your face, mouth and eyes with your hands.

● Avoid direct, unprotected contact with farm or wild animals, particularly when visiting live markets in affected areas. Preferably avoid such markets.

Picture: iStock

● Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and be careful when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to prevent potential cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

● Although face masks do not provide complete protection from airborne diseases, they may provide at least some additional defence against infection.

● Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or a flexed elbow when coughing or sneezing.

According to Vincent, these measures are a means to protect oneself from any kind of infectious illness and are especially important for international travellers to heed at this time.

He advises anyone who has severe fever, cough, difficulty breathing and/or chest pain to seek medical attention promptly and to share their complete travel history with their healthcare practitioner.

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