Despite the vast advances made in medical sciences, nature stays a step ahead of human ingenuity. While we eradicate old diseases, new ones emerge.
While we have been successful in eradicating diseases like smallpox, plague and to great extent polio, new emerging viruses continue to threaten a pandemic-Ebola virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrom (MERS) and the avian flu to name just a few. The 2009 swine flu, a pandemic is reported to have killed over 40 million people worldwide since its emergence.
Newly emerging viruses are sometimes totally new and previously unknown- like HIV, Ebola, and SARS, while some virus called ‘remerging viruses’ are mutants of older known viruses-like the swine flu virus.
The latest in the series is a mystery pneumonia-like illness that is spreading in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, in Central China. So far, 59 people have reported the symptoms, with seven of them assessed critically. The media is reporting the death of a 61-year-old male who is said to been affected by the virus.
The symptoms of the disease include body-ache, high-fever, breathing difficulty and lung lesions. The illness is suspected to be caused by a new strain of coronavirus. China’s healthcare capabilities with WHO assistance are being challenged, dealing with the unfamiliar and possibly infectious disease.
Coronaviruses belong to a large family of viruses that infect both animals and humans. Wuhan is in proximity to Guangdong Province in South China, wherein 2002, the SARS epidemic, broke out.
It may be recollected, in 2002 - 03, SARS infected more than 8,098 people worldwide and caused 774 deaths, before it was contained. In just eight months, SARS had spread to 37 countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. The coronavirus that caused SARS was traced to the Civet Cat, a wild animal considered to be a delicacy in South China. Similarly, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), which was identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and is responsible for 851 deaths, has been attributed to a coronavirus that jumped to humans from the Dromedary camel.
Several of the 59 people, who suffered the ailment are believed to have worked at Wuhan’s South China Seafood City. On 01 Jan 2020, Chinese authorities shut the market, for carrying out extensive disinfection. The 1000-stall bazar not only sold seafood but marmots, spotted deer, venomous snakes, and other exotic delicacies.
According to Chinese scientists, the new coronavirus, is different from SARS, MERS, the flu, bird flu, adenoviruses and other pathogens that cause pneumonia. However, it is from the same family as the deadly SARS; but, unlike the SARS coronavirus, the new pathogen has not exhibited human-to-human transmission, so far. Neither has any healthcare worker has been infected. China Central TV (CCTV) has reported that more scientific research was needed, for better understanding.
Health authorities in Asia, have stepped up screenings of passengers and begun isolating patients with flu-like symptoms & who recently traveled to Wuhan. Officials at Hong Kong International Airport have installed thermal imaging systems to scan people with fevers. So far, 38 passengers have been detained and hospitalized in quarantine. Taiwan, South Korea Thailand, Philippines, and Singapore have also begun placing passengers with symptoms, under isolated treatment. Thailand is also reporting an infected traveler from China.
Leo Poon, an epidemiologist, working with Hong Kong University, says there are three key questions that need to be answered? What is the cause of diseases? Is it a brand-new virus? Is it transmissible between humans? Since the incubation period is at least 15 days for some viral infections, experts await in case the outbreak becomes a full-blown epidemic.
- Both, the coronaviruses that caused SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012, are believed to have jumped from animals to humans before they became humanly communicable. If the Wuhan Pneumonia is found to be contagious, it could pose a major public health challenge; particularly before the Chinese New Year, when several million Chinese are expected to travel.
- In the instant case, China is fully cooperating with the WHO to combat this threat. It is vital that there is no delay in sharing all the vital details and allowing unrestricted access to experts, unlike what happened in 2002 during the SARS break out, to successfully combat the menace.
- In the meantime, Virologists need to urgently study the pathogen to determine countermeasures, like antiviral drugs and suitable respiratory machines.
Image Courtesy: CGTN.com