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What actually is COVID-19 and how you can prevent it

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Dr Bindu Mayi, Professor — Microbiology and infectious disease expert at Nova Southeastern University, Florida, shares her insights on how to deal with COVID-19

The new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has been systematically working its way to local spread in countries outside of China, where it originated. The United States now has started showing local spread, a matter of importance to many Indians who have family either travelling or living here. For a new virus with reported mortality rate of two to three per cent, this is indeed disconcerting, especially since seasonal Flu with a mortality rate of 0.1 per cent has already killed 18,000 people just here in the United States. Could India be next? This is an important point to consider because the time to mobilise prevention tactics is ‘Now.’

When any infection affects the population, it is worth remembering that there will always be a group of individuals who are more vulnerable to the infection, the group consisting of newborns, pregnant women, young children, those with chronic medical conditions like diabetes, ailments of the heart, lungs and kidneys, and the immunocompromised. We maximise our ability to protect these vulnerable individuals by ensuring that the non-vulnerable group of individuals – i.e. those who have healthy immune systems – are not harbouring the infection and passing it around. The more people who engage in prevention, either because they get vaccinated (IF vaccines are available) or because they know how to prevent infection, the better it is to prevent vulnerable individuals from getting infected.

What does this mean for SARS-CoV-2?

SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus like the SARS coronavirus (of the 2002/2003 outbreak fame), and shares almost 80 per cent genetic similarity. The biggest difference between SARS and COVID-19 (disease caused by SARS-CoV-2) is the simple, yet critical fact, that only symptomatic individuals infected with the SARS-coronavirus were contagious. Even so, it took about eight months, 8,098 cases spread over 37 countries, and 774 deaths before we said goodbye to that coronavirus.

The vast majority of thes cases is in China, with deaths also seen in Australia, France, Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Japan, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and now the United States.

The virus starts out with NO symptoms or cold-like symptoms and spreads by (1) coughing or sneezing out infected droplets and aerosols that can be inhaled by others (2) shedding virus in fecal matter or urine and (3) contaminating hands and surfaces with infected cough and sneeze droplets, fecal matter or urine.

An easy solution is to trap cough and sneeze particles in a handkerchief or tissue, instead of letting these particles have free reign and travel several meters towards a fresh nose. We can wash our hands well after coughing or sneezing or using the toilet. Hands can be a great conduit in spread of infections – either we go back to becoming a culture that folds our hands and says Namaste or we make sure to never touch our faces and our food until after we have washed our hands.

The new virus seems to be affecting those whose immune systems are compromised either due to old age or a pre-existing chronic condition. Research has shown us that old age doesn’t need to be synonymous with immune compromise – we can all have robust immune systems by eating well, hydrating enough, destressing regularly, having friends we socialize with, exercising, sleeping enough and by managing any chronic medical conditions we may have.

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