- February 11, 2020
An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see,
I guess an’ fear!
– Robert Burns
The newly named COVID-19 is still very much in the headlines from scientific journals to The Sun, and all media are now clear that having a non-stigmatising name matters, preventing inaccurate names which can spread misleading public health notions.
There is an outbreak of public health and epidemiological experts talking in the media, which amongst the panic and fear of this new viral and sometimes fatal illness is encouraging. It is bringing science into the mainstream and shows how scientific knowledge unfolds through observation, mathematical modelling, experimentation in the case of vaccine developments, and in the case of a viral epidemic, the race-against-time battle to find out as much as possible, as quickly as possible.
For the public it can be confusing. Some experts sound reassuring with their common sense words about washing your hands. Some experts are predicting the largest pandemic since the 1918 Flu Pandemic which was known as the Spanish Flu and killed millions of people globally (with differing estimates of 20 – 100 million and popularly estimated at 50 million).
Everyone has twigged that it’s still too early to tell. Viruses are canny and always have been in their quest for world domination. Scientists and doctors have to outwit them with the tools of isolation and containment, vaccines, and sheer maths to halt the spread of the disease. Our immune systems also have a large part to play although we often feel powerless in the face of something new and until now unforeseen.
For those who’d like some clarity on the words being bandied about, here is a short guide to some of the terminology:
Pandemic– a disease epidemic that has spread across large regions, and even continents. Pandemics are normally associated with ‘Flu. Influenza Pandemics are associated with Type A flu viruses, which are more severe than types B and C and can cause widespread and serious outbreaks. Influenza A mutates faster than other flu viruses, creating new strains seasonally. Influenza A is also present in animals and birds. Wild birds are the natural hosts for some specific type A viruses (also called avian flu) and these infections can spread to other animals and humans. This inter-species spread and ability to mutate fast is what can cause pandemics. The genetic components of a virus are investigated, to see whether they contain a mix of avian and human influenza virus genes or an increased number of mutations, which could suggest a particular adaptation in humans. There have not been pandemics of the new animal coronaviruses before.
Antigenic Drift and Antigenic Shift– Virologists (scientists who study viruses) talk about “shifted strains of Influenza A” which relates to how viruses can mutate. A virus is a tiny pack of genes wrapped in a protein coat. How this protein coat changes can make the difference as to how easily the virus is transmitted. For more information see:
Endemic – an endemic disease is one that is always found in a particular region or among a particular population. If the spread of an early disease cannot be isolated and prevented, then it can become endemic, such as malaria in parts of the world, or the chicken-pox virus (varicella) which is endemic worldwide.
Containment – is the public health approach to limiting and control the spread of a disease. This can involve a variety of tools such as early identification and notification, surveillance, laboratory testing, containment communications to ensure each person with an infectious disease is traced and tracked (ie, found and monitored, and the people they have been in contact with traced also).
Virulence Factors – the ability of a virus to infect and cause damage to its host (humans)
Vaccines – At present, immunization is the best method for preventing influenza Type A viruses, although antivirals are also being developed for therapy. Most countries immunize about 10% of their population each year, prioritizing those most at-risk. It is also wise to immunize groups who work in the community such as NHS staff and police.
In Brighton, following a small but very significant outbreak of cases, linked to the first British case diagnosed; the city council, the local health services and Public Health England are in very close contact to track the cases and ensure any potential cases immediately self-isolate before diagnoses are confirmed. The first British case, aka ‘super-spreader’ from Brighton, has now recovered, giving hope to those infected and the worried-well! This contrasts with the global death toll which now numbers well over a thousand.
The risk in the UK appears manageable, but it is still a challenge to control the spread of Covid19 and a global group effort; where even local police now have the powers to put you in quarantine at the first hint of infection.
So try not to guess and fear; sneeze into your elbows, name things accurately and keep informed of the local and global picture; so you’re prepared for any epidemiological eventuality.
Originator of Immunos v Pathos