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It’s likely you will have already heard of the dangerous coronavirus sweeping China, but what exactly is it and are we at risk in the UK?
The virus has already claimed the lives of 26 people and more than 850 are thought to been infected.
While the majority of the cases have been in China, there have also been outbreaks reported in the United States, Hong Kong, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, Macau, Japan and the Philippines.
Now a number of people are being tested for coronavirus in the UK, too.
We spoke to Dr Richard Dawood – a travel health and tropical diseases specialist at London’s Fleet Street Clinic – for the answers to our burning questions.
What is the coronavirus?
Dr Richard tells GoodtoKnow, “Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that includes some of the viruses responsible for the common cold.
“Mostly, these viruses attack the upper respiratory tract, causing the symptoms we are all familiar with of the common cold.”
Where has the coronavirus come from?
Dr Richard adds, “In recent years, there have been outbreaks of two viruses that have resulted from human contact with animals.
“The first of these was the virus causing SARS, which spread from members of the cat family, causing a serious outbreak originating in China in 2002 to 2003. The second was the virus causing MERS that spread from camels in the Middle East in 2008.
“This new coronavirus variant has originated from Wuhan province in central China. The outbreak has centred on a large food market in which live animals were in close contact with large numbers of people.”
What are the symptoms?
Dr Richard says, “The characteristic features of infection with this new virus are fever and infection of the lower respiratory tract – viral pneumonia.
“So person suffering from infection will have a high temperature and a cough perhaps with shortness of breath.”
What can potentially happen if you contract it?
Dr Richard adds, “Quite a large proportion of the people with infection have ended up with serious pneumonia requiring hospital treatment.
“So far the mortality rates from this infection are much less than with SARS or MERS. The full picture hasn’t yet emerged, but the mortality rate seems to be around 2%, with mostly elderly people among the victims.”
How does the coronavirus spread?
Dr Richard says, “In general, coronaviruses are spread by airborne droplets that are exhaled or coughed out by people suffering from infection, that are either inhaled by a susceptible person, or that can contaminate hard surfaces and can then be spread by her hand hygiene. We may yet discover that there are other factors at play in this outbreak.
“Since the new coronavirus causes pneumonia, it has been speculated that it may be less easily transmissible than coronaviruses that cause upper respiratory tract infection.”
What happens if it comes to the UK?
Dr Richard adds, “Travel takes place on a massive scale, both nationally within China and internationally, so it is inevitable that cases may arrive in the UK involving people who have travelled from Wuhan.
“So far, onward spread by arriving travellers has either not been observed or is happening only on an incredibly small scale. It is possible therefore that prompt medical attention and isolation of people reporting symptoms may help contain and control spread of infection.”
What areas of China have been affected?
Richard tells GoodtoKnow, “The centre of the outbreak is Wuhan, in central China. Until now direct flights from Wuhan to the UK have been fairly limited, with only three flights per week.
“However, the Chinese authorities have now imposed an internal travel ban on flights leaving Wuhan as well as transportation by other means. There has been spread from Wuhan to major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and also to Hong Kong and Macau, but the numbers of cases so far have been very small.”
Should travellers still go to China? If they do go, what should they keep in mind?
Dr Richard says, “The Foreign & Commonwealth Office is currently advising against travel to Wuhan unless essential. So far no advice has been issued about travel elsewhere in China. China is a huge country and it is very difficult to generalise about risk at this stage.
“The best advice is to keep plans as flexible as possible and to be aware of updates and changes in advice published by the foreign and Commonwealth office on its website, and also the official source of health information for international travel from Public Health England.
“Travellers to China should be vaccinated against flu in order to reduce the risk of developing an illness that would be easily confused with coronavirus infection (flu vaccination does not protect against coronavirus, but flu is currently a much more common and likely problem.)
“Other sensible precautions include: careful attention to hand hygiene with frequent washing and use of hand sanitisers; and ‘social distancing’ – staying at least a metre away from anyone exhibiting cough or cold symptoms.
“In general, face masks are only limited value: there’s no point wearing them outdoors, and if worn at all, care must always be taken when handling them after use, so as to avoid contaminating oneself.”