As word about the new SARS-like MERS-CoV virus (Middle East Respiratory Virus, a type of coronavirus) spreads across the globe, many of us may be feeling a little concerned.
I don’t know about you, but every time a virus like this breaks out I am haunted by scenes from the movies Contagion and Outbreak. Viruses can be scary stuff, especially when the media reports on them frequently.
To help understand this new virus better and to calm my fears (and hopefully your’s too), I contacted Cedric Spak, M.D., an infectious disease expert on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. He also has a degree in epidemiology, the study of patterns of disease in the human population.
I asked Dr. Spak, “how do viruses like this pop up that we’ve never seen before?” He said that it happens all the time. “Viruses sometimes go away just as quickly as they came.”
He also noted that while MERS-CoV is certainly a concern, “we tend to get nervous about the wrong illnesses and infections.”
For example, so far, MERs-CoV has taken the lives of 30 of the 54 people that have been infected, all in the Middle East region with scattered cases throughout some parts of Europe. So far, there have not been any infections in North America.
- There were approximately 34 million people living with HIV in 2011 with another nearly 1 in 5 people who are infected unaware of their status. In 2010, the state of Texas ranked as the 4th highest among the 50 states in cumulative reported AIDS cases.
- About 1/3 of the world’s population is infected with tuberculosis (TB), according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In fact, to work at a hospital, we all have to get an annual TB test to make sure we have not been exposed to the disease.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) also says that about 150 million people are chronically infected with hepatitis C virus, and more than 350,000 people die every year from hepatitis C-related liver diseases.
- Let’s not forget the flu. It affects 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population every year with more than 200,000 people hospitalized from seasonal flu-related complications very year. Some of those hospitalizations result in deaths. Thankfully, we have a vaccine to help protect us against the flu, yet many people still do not get it. Regarding people’s fears of the flu vaccine, Dr. Spak says “I don’t know of anyone who has ever died from the flu vaccine, but I know of plenty who have died from the flu.”
These stats are certainly not meant to downplay MERS-CoV because we don’t know much about it yet, but these statistics help put things in perspective a bit more. At least for me.
Dr. Spak’s advice is to focus on the diseases you can do something about right now. In fact, all four of the diseases listed above are treatable and preventable.
To my surprise, Dr. Spak explained that viruses come and go all the time. Remember SARS? The news coverage of crowds of people in China wearing masks and gloves was a little terrifying. So far, it hasn’t become the worldwide pandemic that we were afraid it would be.
While we were on the topic of viruses, Dr. Spak shared some fascinating insight. He said there are literally thousands of viruses out there, but the medical community only knows about a few. They are constantly changing and morphing and becoming resistant to treatments. Some viruses affect certain people severely while others may have a virus and never have symptoms or even know they are infected. Some viruses can actually beneficial.
- Take West Nile for example. North Texas was hit very hard by this mosquito-borne virus last year with 270 cases (the most in the country) which resulted in 11 deaths. In fact, if you get West Nile and your immune system develops enough antibodies against it, you may be immune to it in the future, according to Dr. Spak.
- There are also many viruses that affect children and adults differently. Chickenpox (varicella) is one of them. Many of us had chickenpox as children. The virus came and went and we were immune to it for most of our lives. However, if contracted by an adult who does not have the immunity, chicken pox can be deadly. It is now required for children to be vaccinated against chickenpox before they ever get it. Check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for more information about the vaccine.
- Mono (mononucleosis) is another example. Most everyone knows someone who has contracted this nasty virus. As a teenager or adult, it can put you out of commission for weeks or even months. Young children can contract it as well, but may only experience fever, fussiness and a sore throat for a few days according to Dr. Spak. Like chickenpox, if you contract mono as a child, you will likely be immune to it later on in life.
As far as coronavirus is concerned, Dr. Spak shared some good advice for the time being that could also help prevent many other types of viruses:
- Always cover your cough or sneeze
- Wash your hands frequently, but do it correctly. This resource from the CDC may help.
- If you have plans to travel to the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia, make adjustments to your travel schedule if you are worried. You don’t have to avoid it all together, but pay attention to what’s happening with this virus and plan accordingly.
- Finally, if you know of someone there infected with the virus, it’s a good idea to keep your distance.
“When it comes to preventing the spread of viruses, common sense goes a long way,” explains Dr. Spak. He also says that you can trust the WHO to do a great job of investigating this illness and informing the public. Check their website for updates if you are concerned.
And Dr. Spak offers one last piece of advice unrelated to MERS-CoV: “Get your flu shot this year.”