Covid-19 sweeps across Europe

24th Mar 2020
Covid-19 sweeps across Europe

Pedestrians wear medical masks as a precaution against Coronavirus in London

(Credit: İlyas Tayfun Salcı/Anadolu Agency)

The new Coronavirus, Covid-19, has now spread across most of the world with cases in Europe rising and countries imposing drastic measures to reduce the spread. By March 13 the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared the virus a pandemic and that Europe, rather than China was now the “epicentre.”

Many European countries decided to close schools, large gatherings and even restaurants and hotels in an effort to stop the spread of the virus and reduce the pressure on stretched health services. The US declared a National State of Emergency and banned flights from Europe and the UK.

Scientists and healthcare agencies are continually learning about the virus as data from different countries become available. Firstly, Covid-19 has been identified as a Coronavirus – a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).

However, this is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans and as such people will not have immunity to it. So there are no standard treatments or a vaccine.
Viruses continuously mutate and evolve and several strains of the Coronavirus have been identified, which are collectively known as Sars-CoV-2 – with Covid-19 the name given to the clinical illness these viruses cause (in general it is referred to as Covid-19).

In the current outbreak, scientists have identified two main strains of the virus emerging. The one most closely associated with the outbreak in Wuhan is more prevalent, and it is reportedly more virulent. The second one is less prevalent so far, and it has a lesser impact on its host, research shows.

Covid-19 is spread mainly from person-to-person via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

The virus can also survive on surfaces and objects, which can be picked up on people’s hands and then infect a person when they touch their mouth, nose, or eyes. This is why governments have issued advice to self-isolate if you are sick and to wash hands thoroughly with soap and water (for at least 20 seconds) or use hand sanitiser. Washing hands after being in public or before eating food, etc. is particularly important as any virus on your hands is washed off before you infect yourself.

Clean phones

In addition to hand washing, people are being advised to clean their mobile phones. However, care should be taken when cleaning the phone screen as some products and cleansing gels can contain chemicals that can damage the screen’s protective coating. A damp microfibre cloth with a mixture of soap and water can be used instead, taking care not to get moisture into any of the phone’s sockets. Then wipe the phone dry. Also, clean commonly used items such as remote controls, door handles and rails.

Symptoms of Covid-19

Most symptoms include a high temperature, tiredness and a dry cough, which may lead to shortness of breath – other symptoms can include a sore throat, runny nose and muscle fatigue. Symptoms may appear in anything from 2 to 14 days after exposure, but data suggest that most people will exhibit symptoms within 5 days.

This is why the UK Government has asked anyone with a temperature or cold-like symptoms to self-isolate for 7 days. These symptoms are treated with bed rest, plenty of fluids and paracetamol and will last for about a week. Most people will recover without needing any hospital care.

Some may develop a more serious illness due to the immune system overreacting to the virus and causing inflammation. Inflammation is one of the body’s defence systems against infection, but too much can cause damage throughout the body. Inflammation of the lungs is called pneumonia and the tiny air sacs in the lungs become filled with fluid and the patient experiences difficulty breathing.

At this point, some people will need a ventilator to help them breathe. It is estimated around 5 – 6 per cent of cases become critically ill; with the immune system causing widespread inflammation affecting the lungs and other organs.

Based on data from China, the WHO says of patients who contract the virus:

81 per cent develop mild symptoms
14 per cent develop severe symptoms
5 per cent become critically ill

The proportion dying of the disease appears low (between one per cent and two per cent) – but the figures are unreliable as it is hard to know how many people are infected. The elderly and those with other health conditions are more at risk – but children appear to generally experience only mild symptoms, according to data from China.

What self-isolation means

Everyone has to do their bit to prevent the spread of the virus. That means taking the advice to self-isolate seriously. You may develop mild symptoms, but you could pass the disease on to someone else that could become critically ill.

Self-isolation means you need to stay at home, not go to work, school or other public places, and avoid taxis, says Public Health England.

You should not visitors and if living with others you should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom if possible, if not, use the bathroom after everyone else and then disinfect door handles and taps, etc. If, you are alone ask family and friends to deliver food or medication but ask them to leave it on the doorstep to reduce contact and risk spreading the infection.

People living with someone in isolation should avoid direct contact, wash hands often, using soap and water and not share toiletries or towels. Any rubbish the isolated person comes in contact with should be double bagged.

The Government may introduce new guidelines advising whole households to stay at home if one person has symptoms and isolation of the over 70s. Already, mass gatherings such as sporting fixtures have been cancelled, but as of mid-March, the Government has not advised that school close, in contrast to many other European countries.

It is hard to know how this pandemic will develop. One hope is that as we move towards the warmer months the number of cases will reduce as we see with the flu – but as it is a new virus we just don’t know.

But just like the flu, health experts have said that the new Coronavirus was likely to become an annual seasonal infection and that officials were aiming to reduce the peak, “not suppress it completely.” Many researchers are working on developing treatments and a vaccine, but that will take time. In the meantime, we all need to take this seriously and follow advice on handwashing and isolation.

Rachel Kayani

 

NOTICE: This column was written last week, prior to the UK Government announcement of a nation-wide lockdown.

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