Respiratory Viruses Threaten to Cause Global Outbreaks


Viral pandemics occur with surprising regularity throughout world history and today we are battling with not one, but two respiratory viruses which threaten to cause global outbreaks. The novel coronavirus connected to the Middle East has infected a total of 40 people, while new bird flu in China is killing more and more patients. Is the danger of deadly pandemic real? Global health officials seem to explain there is no need of panic.

The new coronavirus, NCoV, spread to France last week where authorities confirmed two cases of the infection. The situation has been handled well, but a recent outbreak in Saudi Arabia caused debates and scientists are now preparing for the worst. Half of the 40 cases confirmed around the world ended in death and the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a global alert. Still, experts don’t know whether the virus which is from the same family as SARS has the capability to trigger a full epidemic. At the same time, a new strain of the bird flu, H7N9 has spread in China, infecting at least 131 people and killing 32 of them. According to the WHO, which is monitoring both viruses, they have the potential to cause a pandemic if they mutate into forms easily spreading from person to person.

This question has already found an answer, at least partially – the coronavirus outbreak in Saudi Arabia shows that person-to-person transmission is possible. Many of the latest cases are directly connected to a one particular hospital in Saudi Eastern province where patients were treated. After exposure to the patients, two of the health care workers were infected, which is according to WHO, the first time hospital workers have been diagnosed after direct contact. However, there is no evidence NCoV is spreading easily between people – this takes very close contact for a long period of time.

The other virus, H7N9, seems far more dangerous, say health authorities. It is unclear exactly what kind of exposure leads to human infection, whether it is human-to-human, or the virus can jump from animals to people. Birds are transmitting H7N9 but there are in fact no sick birds and animals so far, which means the virus may be spreading silently in poultry populations. Although it isn’t as deadly as the coronavirus, it is far more contagious, at least for now. Gregory Hartl, WHO spokesman, admitted we can’t say which virus poses a greater danger and which can cause a global outbreak. The truth is, both infections are of great concern to experts, but the improved surveillance in countries in the Middle East and China, as well as in other regions can limit further outbreaks. WHO recommend no travel or trade restrictions.


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