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What is coronavirus? Symptoms, treatment and protecting yourself

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are known to cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

How long have we known they can infect humans?

Detailed investigations found that SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans in China in 2002 and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to humans in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans. As surveillance improves around the world, more coronaviruses are likely to be identified.

What are the symptoms?

Common signs include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

How deadly is the new virus?

Experts are still trying to get a clear picture of how dangerous the new strain is. Early indications are that it has a mortality rate of 2% – although this will change as more cases are diagnosed. By comparison most flu viruses have a mortality rate of less than 1%. Seasonal flu has a mortality rate of 0.1%. However, scientists don’t know if there is a larger reservoir of people who have caught the new coronavirus but suffered mild – or no – symptoms. If that is the case, the mortality rate will fall.

Can coronaviruses be transmitted human-to-human?

Yes – usually after close contact with an infected patient, for example, in a household workplace, or health care centre. 

Is there a vaccine?

Not at this present time although scientific teams around the world are racing to find one. The most optimistic estimates are that a vaccine will not be ready for the general population until next winter, although it may be longer. Work done to find a vaccine for MERS could help speed things along.

What is the treatment?

There is no specific treatment for disease caused by a novel coronavirus. However, many of the symptoms can be treated and therefore treatment based on the patient’s clinical condition. Moreover, supportive care for infected persons can be highly effective.

How can I protect myself?

The World Health Organisation’s official advice can be found here

WHO’s standard recommendations to reduce exposure to and transmission of a range of illnesses include maintaining basic hand and respiratory hygiene, and safe food practices and avoiding close contact, when possible, with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing.

What are the Uk authorities saying?

The UK Chief Medical Officers have raised the risk to the public from low to moderate. But the risk to individuals remains low.

Health professionals are working to contact anyone who has been in close contact with people who have coronavirus.

NHS advice

There are things you can do to help stop germs like coronavirus spreading:

  • Always carry tissues with you and use them to catch your cough or sneeze. Then bin the tissue, and wash your hands, or use a sanitiser gel.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after using public transport. Use a sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are unwell.
  • If you have arrived back from China or specified areas in the last 14 days, follow the advice on this page for returning travellers.

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