The most well-known viral outbreak to hit the news and capture the world’s attention was SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), a virus originating in China in 2002, which killed 774 people in 17 countries and infected more than 8000 people worldwide. It took only a few months for it to spread around the world. Sufferers experienced flu-like symptoms such as fever, dry cough, headache, muscle aches and difficulty breathing. It had a 10% fatality rate. In 2012 another virus appeared and caused a fatal epidemic. MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) was responsible for infecting 2494 people and had a much higher mortality rate (35%), killing 858 people.

Both of these fatal epidemics were caused by coronaviruses, a family of viruses common to animals and birds. Once transmitted from animal or bird to humans they cause symptoms similar to the common cold but can cause more severe health issues such as pneumonia, respiratory failure, kidney failure and even death.

Seventeen years after SARS appeared, it is a new coronavirus (COVID-19) that is alarming world health authorities, closing borders and has so far (as of 18 Feb 2020) infected over 70,000 people and caused more than 1,710 deaths. It is believed to have originated from a wild animal and seafood market in Wuhan, China but has since spread, now appearing in at least 27 countries including Taiwan, Japan, Canada, the US, France and Australia. It has not yet reached New Zealand, but it is likely to. So far only a few people outside of China have died. Whist initially people who were infected with the new coronavirus contracted it from exposure to animals, it has now been confirmed that person-to-person transmission has occurred. Researchers think the new virus came from bats but are unsure which animal passed it on to humans. It has been suggested the virus was transmitted to humans via a snake, but it appears more likely to be a mammal.

The reported symptoms of the novel coronavirus are fever, coughing, trouble breathing or shortness of breath and pneumonia. People appear to be in a less serious condition than those people who were infected with the SARS and MERS coronaviruses, and there is a much lower death rate of approximately 2%. It appears that transmission is possible during the incubation period. Someone sick with the new virus can pass it onto another person even if they aren’t yet displaying any symptoms. It is estimated that each patient can infect two to four others, so the infectiousness of this new virus is similar to influenza.

Symptoms may appear two to fourteen days after exposure. The virus is likely to be spread in a similar manner to SARS and MERS which is through droplets when someone coughs or sneezes. It is particularly dangerous in older people, those sick with other illnesses and people with weakened immune systems. At this stage of the outbreak there is no cure, and a vaccine could be several months away.

The treatment being provided to those infected is non-specific. Patients are given supportive care for their symptoms such as fluids and pain relief. Hospitalised patients may need support with their breathing.

To minimise the risk of becoming infected with or spreading the virus, it is recommended that people take the same precautions as for preventing any other virus:

  • wash hands regularly for at least 20 seconds in warm, soapy water and thoroughly dry hands (or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser)
  • cover mouth and nose with disposable tissues or clothing when coughing or sneezing
  • don’t touch your face, stay home if sick, avoid close contact with anyone showing cold or flu symptoms
  • avoid close contact with sick farm animals or wild animals, and don’t attend public places or events if unwell.

Face masks may be useful in reducing the spread of the illness when worn by those showing signs of an acute respiratory infection or health professionals who are in close contact with unwell patients. If you decide to use a face mask it is important they are a snug fit, fully cover the mouth and nose and are worn and removed correctly.

For international travellers who fall ill within a month of their return to New Zealand, they are advised to seek medical advice. Healthline (0800 611 116) is a free medical advice phone line. The Ministry of Health advises people who are at high risk of exposure to coronavirus because they have recently travelled to Wuhan or Hubei province in China, that they should isolate themselves for 14 days after leaving Hubei province. This means avoiding any situation where you come into contact with others.

For more information visit The Ministry of Health website: If you need medical advice contact Healthline 0800 611 116.

This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.