More than a year after the first case of coronavirus, all is quiet on the front lines of the campaign to warn of and fight the disease. It’s a shame, because the germ has been linked to a deadly illness and the secrecy has robbed some people of information on safe practices.
In an article published Friday in JAMA, Bruce Aylward, the World Health Organization’s lead virologist on coronavirus, writes that “many people have become misinformed, and I’ve been frustrated about how to help them.”
There have been five confirmed cases of contracting the disease — two of them in England and Canada, two in France and one in Saudi Arabia. All were confirmed from coronavirus-contaminated blood cultures and were hospitalized for a couple of weeks. There are many more people who contracted the disease from close contact with infected animals but survived.
But the virus has spread relatively quietly in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where it was first identified. Since the first known case in late September 2016, the virus has been exported to other countries, primarily via planes.
The largest outbreak occurred in October 2017. One case was reported in Qatar and another in Saudi Arabia. According to a 2017 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been several additional outbreaks in the past year.
Is this enough evidence to declare that the virus has peaked? “Not enough” is the immediate response by several infectious-disease experts in the article.
But Aylward does not take the long view. “It appears to be a lot more common than the experts believed,” he writes. “It’s not clear whether the virus will re-emerge and become a major threat.”
In recent years, there has been considerable attention paid to the disease because of the possibility that it could spread among people. In 2005, SARS, which is coronavirus, sickened more than 8,000 people in 17 countries. When it spread to the U.S., it was often traced to a single source: a Hong Kong man who had traveled to the region. The man died of the disease, but infection among other travelers to the Hong Kong area was not apparent.
Aylward is particularly upset about the misinformation. His strategy seems to be to correct the wrongs. “In 2015, I wrote two pieces to correct multiple misinformation that is not useful,” he wrote.
For example, there is widespread misinformation that the virus is linked to mono. In fact, there is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted from person to person. “The next few years will be crucial for monitoring the coronavirus’ resurgence,” Aylward writes. “The public needs to be informed of good practices to protect themselves from the spread of the virus.”
The guidelines cover the disease at all stages of development, including: wearing socks and sneakers when hands are washing, preparing food in a food processor rather than a sink, washing their hands in cool water and avoiding touching their faces.
Some of the information on safe practices that this is based on are on health.gov.
But Aylward says it’s important to note that the safety guidelines are unenforceable. It’s not unheard of that people will lack knowledge of better health practices and continue to carry on activities that bring them health risks.
In that sense, confusing people about new public health issues is counterproductive.
And yet the WHO did make it clear that it wanted to restrict many of the practices protected by this information.
As a result, some of the activities that the WHO tells its members to avoid, such as eating raw meat and raw animal products, are protected in this document because such use can exacerbate health risks.
It is a simple set of guidelines and it is easy to understand, yet they can easily get misunderstood.
Helen Kishimoto contributed to this report.
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