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Why we don’t need to panic about coronavirus, just yet

Analysis: Every year in the UK hundreds of people are killed by normal seasonal flu – coronavirus is cause for concern, not panic

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Saturday 01 February 2020 13:26 GMT
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The risk to the public from coronavirus is low and the chances of dying even if infected is also very low.
The risk to the public from coronavirus is low and the chances of dying even if infected is also very low. (AFP/Getty)

The sight of coach loads of Britons being escorted into quarantine by police and officials wearing protective suits is reminiscent of Hollywood disaster movies, so it’s hardly surprising some members of the public are worried.

Protective face masks have been selling out in some parts of the country after news the Chinese coronavirus has reached the UK, and with wall-to-wall media coverage even the most rational of people might start wondering how bad this could get.

The reality is, while the coronavirus does present potentially very serious risks to public health, it is not nearly as serious as it could be.

Every year in the UK hundreds of people are killed by the normal seasonal flu that annually spreads around the globe, with new strains emerging each winter leading to thousands of people being admitted to hospital.

According to Public Health England more than 3,150 people needed intensive care for flu in the 2018-19 winter, with 312 patients reported as having died.

The coronavirus has killed more than 250 people – all in China – and infected more than 12,000. Its mortality rate is estimated at around 2 per cent, although the unknown true number of infected people means this isn’t yet certain.

The related SARS virus outbreak in 2003 killed 10 per cent of people it infected, while the MERS virus kills around a third of those infected.

One estimate of the total number of people infected by the coronavirus suggests as many as 75,000 people could be infected in Wuhan. Which would potentially mean the mortality rate is much less than currently thought.

So the risk to the public is low and the chances of dying even if infected are also very low. So why has WHO declared a global emergency and why are countries taking such drastic action?

The answer lies in the scientific knowledge we now have about viruses and the way they can mutate as they spread further between people – meaning they can become more deadly. We also know much more about how to prevent the spread of these diseases, hence the global effort now under way to try and limit the spread.

Mutation sounds very scary – the stuff of sci-fi horror. But in truth while there is a chance the coronavirus could mutate into a deadly disease that kills many of the people it infects, there is also a chance it could mutate into something less harmful. This is what happened with the swine flu pandemic in 2009.

The real fear is a re-run of the Spanish flu of 1918, which infected around a third of the world’s population at the time and killed 50 million.

This is why we are seeing quarantine efforts and protective suits. Governments are showing proper concern for the public’s safety. But there is no need to panic, yet.

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