Health Matters: About Coronaviruses

President and chief executive officer of Public Health Ontario, Dr. Eileen de Villa, left, Dr. David Williams, chief medical officer of Health, and Dr. Barbara Yaffe during a press conference to announce the first 'presumptive' case of the coronavirus in Canada on Saturday January 25, 2020. Veronica Henri / Postmedia

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Coronaviruses are among the many groups of viruses that can cause the common cold.

Colds caused by these strains usually go away on their own without any complications. Some viruses can only infect humans while others can only infect animals. Usually viruses that infect animals (like birds, bats or pigs) cannot or very rarely, infect humans. In the rare case an animal virus infects a human, the virus cannot be passed from one person to another and there is no risk to other people who contact the infected human.

However, animal viruses can change to develop the ability to spread from human to human.

These viruses are referred to as “novel” because they are new to humans. Unfortunately, some of these changes can lead to dangerous strains of viruses including:

  • The 2009 swine H1N1 flu virus was responsible for more than 17,000 deaths worldwide, and originated in pigs from central Mexico;
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was caused by a then-novel Coronavirus that originated from civet cats in China and killed more than 800 people worldwide in 2003;
  • Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is caused by another coronavirus that originated in camels in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has caused more than 850 deaths globally; and,
  • Most recently the Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) originated in December 2019, in Wuhan, China, likely from an animal source not yet identified. As of Jan. 29, this virus has infected more than 6,000 people (mostly in China) and has caused about 130 deaths (all in China).

Novel viruses pose a threat to humans, especially the elderly and persons with chronic medical conditions, because we do not have any natural immunity to them nor have we been previously vaccinated against them. It is also important to note that for the three types of novel Coronaviruses, there is currently no specific treatment nor vaccine available.

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About Wuhan Coronavirus (2019-nCoV)

The Wuhan Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) seems to be spreading mostly in China (Hubei province).

A relatively low number of cases have also been reported in other parts of the world, including three in Canada.

Although this is a new emerging infection, we know that incubation period is up to 14 days. It also seems a person can spread the virus only once symptoms begin. Common symptoms include fever, cough and respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.

Currently, only persons who become ill within 14 days of having visited, Hubei province, China or having been in close contact with someone who has a respiratory illness who has been to Hubei within 14 days prior to their illness onset are considered at risk.

How can I protect myself?

It is recommended you use the same precautions regularly used to prevent the spread of viral infections, such as:

  • Frequently wash your hands with soap and water, or use hand sanitizer;
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth unless you have just washed your hands;
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your arm, not your hand; and,
  • Stay home if you are sick.

On a final note, at this time, despite the three cases in Canada – all of which contracted the virus in China – the risk to Canadians is very low.

However federal, provincial and local health authorities are well prepared to identify and contain any new cases should they arrive. For more information: Ontario.ca/coronavirus.

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