WASHINGTON - A new virus spreads within and outside China, and the World Health Organization has confirmed nearly 500 cases, including nearly 20 deaths. Health officials are scrambling to contain the disease, but the virus is new and not much is known about it.
People from China are being screened at airports, both in their own country and abroad. They’re being checked for fever and other symptoms of a new respiratory virus.
The virus is a coronavirus. It’s called that because under a microscope, the virus appears to be surrounded by a crown.
The common cold is an example of a coronavirus and so are SARS — severe acute respiratory syndrome — and MERS — Middle East respiratory syndrome. SARS originated 17 years ago at a food market in China. Scientists traced the virus to civets, catlike animals that were sold for food.
MERS emerged in 2012.
Matthew Frieman is an expert on coronaviruses. He spoke by Skype from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“MERS probably was from bats, but now is endemic in camels all over the Middle East, and spreading from camels to humans,” he said. “For all of these emerging coronaviruses, they have an intermediate host that allows the virus to jump from animals to people.”
This latest coronavirus is associated with a market in Wuhan, a city in central China with a population of 11 million. Respiratory viruses are airborne. They’re transmitted by coughing or sneezing, touching an infected surface and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. Frieman says it’s easier to catch a coronavirus than it is to catch Ebola because Ebola spreads by contact with infected bodily fluids and not from droplets in the air.
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So far, this new virus doesn’t seem to target any one group, but age has its disadvantages. Dr. Anthony Fauci, from the National Institutes of Health, spoke by Skype.
“If you’re elderly, 65 or older, you have a greater chance of complications, but there’s no age restriction on this,” he said.
Complications can include pneumonia, kidney failure, fluid in the lungs and death. Fauci says doctors can treat the symptoms of this disease.
No effective treatment
“If you wind up getting a secondary bacterial infection, you can get put on an antibiotic. If you have respiratory distress and you need help breathing, you could be put on a respirator. But there is no proven, specific, effective treatment for the novel coronavirus,” he said.
Scientists around the world are studying this virus. Frieman says scientists need to find out where the virus is coming from.
“And then, the next steps are really looking at what this virus does, how it causes disease,” he said. “Can we develop diagnostics so we can better know how it spreads in the community?”
The CDC recommends preventative measures such as washing your hands frequently, coughing into your elbow or a tissue, and immediately contacting a doctor if you suspect you have the virus.