Health and Fitness

The Novel Coronavirus From China: What We Know So Far

Doctors are scrambling for answers.
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Just before 2019 ended, a number of people came down with a flu-like illness in Wuhan, China. Before long, those isolated cases became a full on outbreak as more than 300 people have been reported to be experiencing unexplained pneumonia-like symptoms. Six people have died so far.

Doctors tracked down the source to Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, but there is still the unanswered question of what the illness is in the first place. What we know so far is that it causes pneumonia-like symptoms and does not respond to antibiotics.

The virus has already spread to the following countries: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States. A child from China was tested positive for an unspecified coronavirus in Cebu City earlier this week. The Department of Health has sent a specimen from the patient to a facility in Australia to determine if it is indeed the Wuhan coronavirus and whether the mystery illness has entered the Philippines.

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How dangerous is this coronavirus?

“We are in the early stages of trying to understand how severe this infection is and how many deaths is it likely to cause,” said World Health Organization (WHO) Philippines representative Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe.

In the span of approximately one month, six people have died from the disease while 300 more remain infected. Children, the elderly, and those with weak immune symptoms and preexisting conditions are particularly susceptible to the virus. The pneumonia-like illness was first reported on December 12, 2019, and as of January 22, there is still no cure or vaccine for it. 

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The unidentified mystery illness has taken the spotlight in the medical community as many are concerned that another severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is taking place. While doctors have confirmed that it’s not SARS, its shadow still lingers in Asia after it rocked the region and resulted in the deaths of more than 700 people in 2002 and 2003.

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As of posting time, the World Health Organization (WHO) have ruled out SARS, Middle East respiratory syndrome, avian influenza, and other influenzas. Symptoms of the mystery coronavirus include: fever, difficulty breathing, and lesions in the lungs. 

Doctors and Chinese officials have confirmed that the coronavirus can be transmitted between humans.

What is it exactly?

Until they find the source of the virus, it's being temporarily called the novel coronavirus or the Wuhan coronavirus. The coronavirus family includes mild and severe diseases, from the common cold to SARS and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Each virus under the coronavirus family has different properties. Some transmit quickly from human to human, like SARS and the common cold, while others are not as easily transmitted.

According to WHO, "Globally, novel coronaviruses emerge periodically in different areas, including SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012." And another episode has emerged in 2019 and 2020.

There are still a number of unanswered questions that WHO and the international medical community are working to determine, such as: the exact source of the disease, the extent of human-to-human transmission, the clinical spectrum of the disease, the geographic range of infection, and most importantly, how to cure it. 

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Why are people worried?

Back in 2002, SARS rapidly spread throughout Asia and hundreds became affected by the disease. The respiratory disease’s nature made it highly contagious, which is why people from the Philippines, Canada, and Hong Kong also became infected from the China-originated virus. The mystery disease is unequivocally not SARS, but health organizations are not taking news of this novel coronavirus lightly. 

Scientists later genetically traced SARS to a colony of bats in a cave in Yunnan province. According to Chinese research, the bats spread the disease to humans at the various packed markets in China. This is similar to the current situation as the market the unidentified disease was traced to is home to domestic and wild game, ranging from chickens to bats. Huanan Seafood Market closed down on January 1, 2020, for cleaning and disinfection. 

“There have been no hospital outbreaks, so it looks better than SARS,” said Leo Poon from Hong Kong University, also adding that the tide could turn at some point. “Viruses and bacteria can adapt and mutate—we have to be very cautious of that.”

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What actions have the Philippines taken?

According to the Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ), all points of entry, such as airports, are currently in alert status, equipped with up-to-date thermal scanners from the BOQ, which will screen all travelers entering the Philippines.

Considering the rise of citizens from mainland China entering the Philippines, the BOQ confirms that “There is a threat because of travel, specifically air travel, from China to the Philippines.” However, the exact number of travelers from Wuhan, China, is yet to be determined.

For Filipinos coming from mainland China or Hong Kong, the BOQ advises travelers to practice prevention measures like regularly washing their hands, avoiding crowded places, avoiding contact with sick persons, and wearing face masks. The BOQ also urges Filipinos to report to health authorities or facilities should they experience flu-like symptoms.

The Philippine Society for Microbiology and Infectious Disease also advises travelers going abroad to avoid touching poultry of visiting poultry markets. Travelers are also advised to refrain from eating raw or undercooked food.

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When asked about the country’s preparedness should the disease reach our shores, the BOQ said, “The Department of Health and BOQ established protocols and trained health personnel to facilitate management of arriving sick travelers and transportation to dedicated DOH hospitals. Infection control measures in the country’s ports of entry are religiously implemented. Moreover, the BOQ is upgrading the quarantine holding facilities to accommodate this type of disease.”

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Anri Ichimura
Staff Writer, Esquire Philippines
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