The virus and fear

There are plenty of things that inspire fear. People are afraid of getting caught up in war. The history of the world and its wars is a story of innocent victims getting caught up in forces that are beyond their control. In wars people lose their homes and are displaced. In wars people loose contact with loved ones and friends. For most Americans, however, war is generally something that we think of as occurring somewhere else. We send our soldiers to war. Not since the Civil War have the casualties been on our soil - in our neighborhoods.

One of the things that inspires fear is disease. Conditions such as severe heart disease and cancer seem to be somewhat random in terms of the victims. We don’t always understand why one person is affected by a disease while another is not. Millions and millions of dollars are invested in research, and new information is found and new treatments are discovered, but we live with a sense of fear that the next visit to the doctor or the next diagnostic procedure could result in a life-altering illness.

Americans are understandably nervous as we read the news of the spread of the coronavirus. We don’t know whether or not we should be afraid, but signs of fear are beginning to appear. The virus started to be detected in China, but there have now been at least five confirmed cases in the United States. People are nervous. Pharmacies in Seattle, where a resident recently fell ill after returning from a trip to China, are selling out of surgical masks. There have been reports of shortages of masks in Washington DC, Los Angeles and other US cities.

There is some reason for worry. The last worldwide epidemic was the SARS virus which was detected in 2003. At that time the virus spread quickly and people were worried. But that was a long time ago and a lot of things have changed. Beck in 2003 about 20.2 million Chinese people traveled abroad. Today the number is closer to 150 million. There are around 360,000 Chinese students studying in US universities who have become used to traveling back and forth between the two countries and have inspired an opening of business and trade with regular flights connecting the countries.

In 2003, social media wasn’t a source of information. Today, it is the major source of information both in China and the United States. The news travels far faster than the virus.

Coronavirus is a family of viruses. The new virus is the seventh of the group that is known to affect humans. It causes severe lung disease leading to pneumonia. The disease starts with a fever, followed by a dry cough and then in a week or so leads to shortness of breath than brings the victim to the hospital. Around one in four of those who contact the virus are severely affected. Others experience a runny nose and sneezing.

It is thought that this type of virus started in other mammals. Sars is thought to have begun with bats, was transferred to cats that in turn infected humans. The early cases of coronavirus have been linked to South China Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, south of Beijing. The death toll from the virus has now topped 100 people.

Chinese scientists believe that people are infectious before the symptoms of the disease appear, making detection and halting the spread a particular challenge.

Bear in mind this is a concern to public health officials, but it has not been declared a worldwide pandemic as was the case with the sine flu pandemic in 2009 and 2010.

Outbreaks of disease have been occurring as long as human memory. Around 430 BC the Plague of Athens was an epidemic that devastated the city-state in ancient Greece during the Peloponnesian War. The Byzantine Empire, especially the capital, Constantinople, was devastated by the Plague of Justinian. The bubonic plague swept across Europe with the last major epidemic affecting London in 1665-1666. A yellow fever epidemic swept through Philadelphia killing 5.000 in 1793.

Diseases spread among people and the more people are crowded and contained in densely populated areas the more quickly diseases spread.

There is a box of surgical masks in our medicine cabinet, left over from a round of colds that affected some family members during the time my wife was recovering from a heart arrest. I don’t plan to start carrying one in my backpack at this time. We still feel fairly isolated from the current coronavirus outbreak. Anyone who has traveled to and from Rapid City knows that the connections are anything but direct. That doesn’t mean that the virus can’t spread to our area, just that we are less likely to see an outbreak than are major cities with direct flights to and from China.

Wearing surgical masks to prevent infection is popular in many places around the world. When we traveled in Japan we saw people wearing masks in train stations and airports and just traveling around the cities. The masks are also worn to protect from high pollution levels, so it is possible that some people we have seen wearing masks have particular susceptibility to the effects of pollution and wear the masks for that purpose.

For what it is worth, scientists don’t believe that surgical masks are effective in stemming the transmission of disease when worn by the general public. They have a place in specific medical situations, but just putting on a mask leaves the eyes exposed and most masks are probably too lose to be an effective virus barrier. Most people don’t really leave the masks on all of the time anyway, removing them to eat or touching them with hands to adjust the fit, thus transferring viruses from hands to mouth despite the mask.

Most important to virus protection is frequent washing of hands. Warm water and soap are the most effective methods. Teaching yourself to avoid touching your eyes and nose is another thing that people can do to help prevent the spread of disease.

We still don’t know how afraid to be, or how severe this virus will affect people. What we do know is that general hygiene is still a good idea. Washing our hands is a good place to start.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!