Coronavirus is the word of the day, it seems, and with it our attention is focused on the real-time development of a disease that is new in human history. It is somewhat unfortunate that the word "coronavirus" has been given such attention, because it is exactly the type of information that gives rise to the saying, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," and also because it obscures some of what we need to know.

To explain what I mean, let's begin with a review of the facts. The name currently given to the new disease that has captured everyone's attention is Novel Coronavirus Infection of 2019 or 2019-nCoVI. It first came to the attention of the authorities outside of China on January 5, 2020. On that date Chinese authorities filed a report with the World Health Organization saying that 59 individuals in Wuhan Province had developed pneumonia caused by an unknown agent, with symptom onset ranging from Dec. 12 to Dec. 29, 2019. Wuhan City, the province capital, is a city with a greater metropolitan area population of more than 9 million people, situated on the Yangtze River. In downtown Wuhan there is what is known as a "wet meat market" where live fish and animals, domestic and exotic, are sold. It is now believed that the virus we call 2019-nCoV originated in that market, which is located quite close to both the river and the train station. The novel virus has an animal reservoir, has recently mutated to be able to infect humans, and is very similar to a coronavirus that typically infects bats. It is also quite similar to the SARS virus and is known to have been passed from one human to another.

There are 7 types of coronavirus that are known to infect humans. All of these are similar in the way they are transmitted and in the initial stages of the illness. They all cause runny nose, cough and other symptoms of the common cold. They are typically transmitted when small amounts of virus-containing secretions from an infected individual are taken into the mouth, nose or eye of the soon-to-be-infected person. Remember this: it's always about the mouth, nose or eye, and if someone who is infected touches one of those locations with their hands and then you touch those hands, you can bring that infectious material to your mouth, nose or eyes, if you don't disinfect your hands first. You can also get sick if you eat undercooked meat or drink raw milk that contains the virus. Generally, the time from exposure to illness is 5 to 6 days, but it can be as little as 2 or as many as 14 days. A person is contagious before they show symptoms, but how long before is variable.

Four types of coronavirus cause only the symptoms of the common cold, but then there are these 3: 2019-nCoV, SARS and MERS. These last three have all produced death in a high percentage of the people known to be infected. To say that this new disease from China is caused by coronavirus may cause exaggerated concern about a particular person, if we learn that they have been diagnosed with coronavirus (a little knowledge…). On the other hand, to stress its similarity to SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) might cause generalized fears, such as fear of all travel, for example.

What we need to know is that at this time (January 26, 2020 at 4:30 PM), all of the infected persons in this country had traveled to Wuhan, China. Currently there are 5 persons in four states (AZ, CA, IL, WA) who have been diagnosed, and about a hundred more are under investigation. The disease is known to be present in 29 of China's 33 provinces. There is currently no legitimate need to be concerned about catching this disease from anyone without a history of travel in China in the last 14 days. The disease has been spread from human to human, but it will continue to be true that everyone who becomes sick with 2019-nCoVI will have a history of travel to China, or some history of a link to someone who got sick after travel to China.

This article is intended to provide general information only, and is not to be taken as medical advice. For advice about a particular case or situation, consult your own physician or other trusted health professional.

Bradly Bundrant, MD, MPH

Medicine, Science and Culture is a service of The Health and Wellness Coalition of Runnels County. Our next meeting will be April 23, 2020 at 7:30 pm (location to be announced).