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What doctors know, don’t know about new coronavirus

Infectious disease experts say virus battle far from over

South Korea’s top infectious disease doctors say the outbreak of the novel coronavirus may just be the beginning, and that medical resources should be distributed with the possibility the epidemic may drag on for months.

In a meeting with a group of reporters on Thursday evening, 10 specialists from the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases shared their understanding of the new virus with a group of reporters.

Those present included the society’s president, Sungkyunkwan Medical School professor Peck Kyong-ran; Shin Hyoung-shik, director of the National Medical Center’s infectious diseases department; Seoul National University Medical School professor Kim Nam-joong; Soonchunhyang Medical School professor Kim Tae-hyong; and Korea University Medical Center professor Sohn Jang-wook.

Below are some of the key takeaways from Thursday’s discussion.


Infectious disease doctors speak with a group of reporters Thursday. (Korean Society of Infectious Diseases)
Infectious disease doctors speak with a group of reporters Thursday. (Korean Society of Infectious Diseases)

Travel bans make sense, disease control-wise

Stopping the inflow of carriers is necessary to contain the spread of a disease. The restrictions on travelers from China’s Hubei province should be expanded to include all regions of the country. The number of confirmed cases is increasing in a number of Southeast Asian countries: Two of the confirmed patients here had recently traveled to Singapore and Thailand. Individuals exhibiting respiratory symptoms with a recent history of travel to affected areas should take particular heed.

No signs of virus dying down yet

According to epidemic forecasting models, the spread of the virus is still rising in China and elsewhere. Not much can be said with certainty at this point, but research suggests it can be expected to peak around April.

Being less social advisable

Transmission is possible in the early stages of the disease, when patients may not even realize they are sick. Many of the confirmed patients carried on with their day-to-day activities for days or even weeks, during which time they came in contact with other people and unknowingly put them at risk. Anyone experiencing respiratory symptoms is advised to stay home and avoid contact with others as much as possible.

Even doctors face many unknowns

A patient who has tested negative may test positive the next day, or possibly a couple of weeks later. This is why there can be no definitive diagnosis when symptoms are mild. Since it is a new disease, we don’t know what works and what doesn’t. Certain drugs used to treat HIV and AIDS have been shown to be effective treatments, but there is no scientific explanation for that yet.

Still, panic not warranted

The virus appears to be more infectious -- but less deadly -- than severe acute respiratory syndrome or Middle East respiratory syndrome. Young, healthy individuals can develop severe pneumonia from the virus. But the average age of confirmed patients in Korea is about 49. Older people and those with preexisting medical conditions are more vulnerable.

Visit clinics, hospitals with caution

What makes the diagnosis of the new coronavirus difficult is that its early symptoms are indistinguishable from those of a cold or flu. During an epidemic, clinics and hospitals are places where you are more likely to run into an infected patient. Unless it’s an emergency, taking rest at home may be safer.

Hand hygiene is best precaution

Washing hands frequently and drying them can significantly lower your risk of getting a respiratory infection. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer in situations where clean, running water and soap aren’t available. Do not touch your face or eat with unwashed hands.

Wearing face masks can protect you, others more so

Face masks don’t offer guaranteed protection. But since the virus is spread through respiratory droplets produced when people cough or sneeze, they can shield you from exposure. Those with respiratory symptoms should definitely wear masks to prevent transmission. They should also be worn at clinics and hospitals, and in crowded places. Seoul especially is a densely populated city. Masks should cover the nose, mouth and chin.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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