In the six weeks since the outbreak of a new coronavirus was first reported in the Hubei Province of China, the news of this growing epidemic remains a constant headline. The virus is multiplying quickly throughout China, and cases have been confirmed in 26 other countries.
While the World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern,” Rachel Casiday, an associate professor in Samford University’s School of Public Health, says it’s important to note that the risk to residents of the United States is still considered low.
“An epidemic is a sudden increase in the number of individuals infected with a disease among a community or population. It is this sudden spike of cases that requires our attention, and a pandemic is when an epidemic reaches a global scale,” she said.
“Right now, we are seeing a new virus that is spreading rapidly. Most of the cases are in China, but we do have cases in other countries that have been traced back to people who have traveled in the region where the outbreak began. Right now, the risk in most countries is considered low, but there is concern about what could happen if the disease becomes more widespread in countries without a strong health care system,” Casiday continued. “This is what our governments and international organizations are working to avoid.”
While there are several types of coronaviruses, the 2019 novel coronavirus is brand new. First identified as a respiratory illness, it is suspected that the virus was transmitted from an infected animal and then continued to spread from human-to-human. While this virus is in the same family as the SARS epidemic of 2003 and the MERS epidemic of 2012, it is not the same.
To date, the spread of the disease is concentrated in China with more than 40,000 confirmed cases. The remaining 26 countries have less than 500 confirmed cases combined.
In comparison, the United States reported more than 13 million cases of influenza in 2019. “The flu and many other diseases impact far more people than this new coronavirus, but there is still a source of concern because there is so much about this virus that we don’t know,” Casiday said. “We expect cases of the flu to rise at this time of year and then to subside by late spring, so our health systems are prepared to deal with the illness. We don’t know whether to expect the novel coronavirus to die out on its own or to continue to spread.”
In recent weeks, new information has slowly emerged. It is evident that the symptoms of the 2019 novel coronavirus vary in severity. “For many people diagnosed with this coronavirus, the symptoms can be mild—like a running nose, sore throat and fever,” Casiday explained. “But in other cases, the symptoms are more severe and individuals can develop pneumonia.”
While researchers continue to learn about this disease, it is reported that the individuals who have died from the virus had other underlying issues that made them more vulnerable compared to the general population.
While health officers are hopeful that this epidemic will be under control in the coming months, Casiday warns the greatest severity may be in the epidemic’s economic impact.
“Wuhan is the eighth largest city in China, and it has essentially been shut down for several weeks,” she said. “China is the second largest economy in the world, and it is a major supplier for numerous industries, including technology and pharmaceuticals. Supply chains will be interrupted, creating problems for the future.”
This semester, Casiday has incorporated the news of the 2019 novel coronavirus into her Introduction to Global Health course. This undergraduate public health course is open to all students, emphasizing the inter-connectedness between health, social and economic factors in all countries.
“During the first class of the semester, I ask students why global health matters,” she said. “The coronavirus is a perfect example. Diseases do not respect national boundaries, and their impact is not isolated to the individuals affected. We need to be aware of disease threats around the world and what is being done to address them.”