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What is coronavirus? Should Wuhan flu worry you?

If you haven't been to China recently, you should not be worried about Wuhan flu.

The weather is playing games and every other person we meet is under the weather this time of the year. However, if you are down with a runny nose, headache, cough and fever (yes, we know they are the most common symptoms), run to the doctor.

The seemingly innocuous symptoms are also associated with the novel coronavirus — the virus that is going viral on news these days.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the more dangerous kinds of coronavirus could cause shortness of breath, chills and body aches. The serious cases can cause pneumonia, respiratory disorders, kidney failure and painful death.

What is 2019 novel coronavirus?

It is a new strain and the latest entrant into the list of viral outbreak caused by coronavirus (CoV), which is a family of virus that caused the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (also known as MERS or camel flu) outbreak in 2012, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak between November 2002 and July 2003.

Coronavirus is zoonotic, meaning that the virus is initially transmitted from animals to humans before it spreads from one human to another. The strain discovered in December 2019 is called 2019-novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) — 'novel', simply because it is newly discovered. Every time there is a coronavirus breakout, it is initially labelled ‘novel’ till the reason for the outbreak is discovered and is prefixed.

In the case of 2019-nCoV, the exact source animal from which it started is yet to be identified. In MERS, it was dromedary camels and SARS was from civet cats (of the luwak kopi fame).

Where it all started: The Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market remains closed in Wuhan, China. (Photo: AP)

This strain was identified in mid-December last year in the inland port city of Wuhan, China. There were a number of people diagnosed with pneumonia with no clear cause. The only common thread was that initially, all the patients were stallholders who worked at the Huanan Seafood Market, which also sold live animals. News reports have suggested that the market was dealing in illegal wildlife trade, and wild animals could be a possible source.

The first instances of symptomatic illness were noted on December 8, 2019, and the suspicion of 2019-nCoV was first reported on December 31, 2019. The market was closed off almost immediately on January 1, 2020, and people with symptoms of the infection were isolated.

A report yesterday said that snakes could be the reason behind the coronavirus outbreak. The Chinese krait and Chinese cobra are being spoken of as the original source of this new coronavirus, which has resulted in growing panic in China.

Cases so far

As of January 24, 2020, 26 deaths have occurred because of the 2019-nCoV infection, all of them in China. Imperial College, London estimated on Wednesday that Wuhan alone probably now has 4,000 symptomatic cases. 830 confirmed cases have been reported as of the end of Thursday by China's National Health Commission. As of Tuesday, in China alone, there were 14 cases in Guangdong, 10 in Beijing, 6 in Shanghai and 5 in Zhejiang, besides the cases in Wuhan.

Chinese tourists wear masks as they travel ahead of Chinese Lunar New Year amidst 2019-nCoV outbreak. (Photo: Reuters)

Cases have been reported across the globe, in the United States stoking fear that the virus is already spreading worldwide. US, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan have reported one confirmed case each, and three have been reported in Thailand. Two persons who returned from China to Mumbai and showed symptoms of mild cough and cold, have been kept in an isolation ward at Kasturba hospital in the city.

Travel advisory

This particular outbreak could not have come at a worse time. China’s busiest travel season has just begun, with millions of people crisscrossing through the country to get home in time for the Chinese Lunar New Year, which is on January 25. It is the annual ritual of family reunions and the Spring Festival holidays for the Chinese people.

According to China’s Ministry of Transport, 117 million railway trips have already been made between January 10 and 19, and millions more are travelling by road, air and waterways. With such large-scale travel and migration during a virus outbreak, the infection is likely to spread the disease further — within China and abroad.

Wuhan is one of the nine National Central Cities of China, among the busiest and most populated, with an estimated 11 million plus people. Chinese authorities have put the city on lockdown. The local government has issued a statement that it would shut down all urban transport networks and suspend outgoing flights from 10 am Beijing Time (7.30 am IST and 2 am GMT) on Thursday.

Besides Wuhan, two other Chinese cities have also been put on lockdown and Beijing has cancelled a number of major public events in an attempt to contain the spread of this deadly coronavirus outbreak. The government is urging citizens to not leave the city, except in special circumstances.

A health official scans the body temperature of a passenger as she arrives at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia. (Photo: AP)

A nurse from Kerala, who was working at a hospital in Saudi Arabia is reported as the first person from India to be tested positive for the 2019-nCoV infection. Initially, there were reports of a 45-year-old Indian school teacher from Shenzhen to be infected with coronavirus. However, her husband confirmed that she is being treated for streptococcal infection. 

Update from @CGIJeddah : About 100 Indian nurses mostly from Kerala working at Al-Hayat hospital have been tested and none except one nurse was found infected by Corona virus. Affected nurse is being treated at Aseer National Hospital and is recovering well. @PMOIndia @MEAIndia https://t.co/jM0u5243GV

— V. Muraleedharan (@MOS_MEA) January 23, 2020

The Indian government is also sparing no stone unturned on its preparedness measures. There are about 55,500 Indians residing in China, according to the MEA's 2018 report. With more than 500 Indian students studying in Wuhan city's medical colleges, the stakes are high. While most of them had left for home for the Chinese New Year holidays, India issued an advisory last week against travel to Wuhan. 

The Ministry of Civil Aviation has directed the immediate implementation of systems to screen passengers arriving from China, including Hong Kong, at airports in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kochi. The action plan includes thermal screening of passengers. "As of January 21, 43 flights and 9,156 passengers have been screened for novel coronavirus. Till now, no case has been detected," a statement by Preeti Sudan, Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said. She added that passengers travelling from China are being asked to report to the nearest public health facility in case they feel any symptoms.

While the World Health Organisation (WHO) has not announced travel restriction requirements, travellers to countries like Australia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam have been advised to anticipate travel disruptions due to screening measures being implemented by their respective authorities.

No prevention, no cure

As is typical with most viral infections, there is no vaccine to protect against coronavirus — at least yet. While research is underway in the US and in Germany, it could be many months before successful clinical trials and the vaccine is available. German researchers have developed the first diagnostic test for 2019-nCoV. That effectively rules out prevention. Further, there is no specific treatment, but healthcare experts say that in most cases, the symptoms go away on their own. But it is imperative to seek early medical intervention to prevent it from worsening. 

Travellers to China have been asked to avoid travelling to farms, live animal markets or slaughterhouses, to refrain from consuming raw or uncooked meat, and also to avoid close contact with people who are unwell or are showing symptoms such as cough and a runny nose. 

In India, you don't have to worry unless you have been to China in the near past.

German researchers have developed the first diagnostic test for the novel coronavirus. (Photo: AP)

As of now, the 2019-nCoV appears less dangerous and infectious than SARS (which also incidentally started in China and killed about 800 people). However, viruses can mutate into more dangerous and contagious forms, and it's too early to say how savage this one will turn out to be.

Also read: Stop the shame, China. The lifting of the ban on using tiger and rhino parts is a call for their extinction

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