The coronavirus pandemic has left destruction in its wake. Entire cities are ghost towns and governments around the globe have called for their citizens to stay indoors to stop the virus from spreading.
To give our readers the most accurate information, we chatted to a specialist in the field, Dr Jantjie Taljaard, who works at Tygerberg Hospital in the Division of Infectious Diseases.
We asked him some pertinent questions regarding the outbreak, here are his answers:
Q: Please explain in simple terms how the coronavirus is spread and why it is so contagious?
A: The coronavirus is spread by droplets and by that we mean respiratory droplets. When one coughs or sneezes, these droplets fall on surfaces around you. If somebody is in very close contact with you when you cough or sneeze – within a metre or two – and if other people touch the surfaces and then touch their faces or mouths, they become infected. The contagiousness depends, different viruses have different levels of contagiousness. It’s slightly more contagious than the flu virus.
The reason why so many people get it is because there’s no natural immunity towards the virus because it is a novel virus – a new virus. So the human immune system has never been exposed to this virus and therefore has no memory of immunity against it. For example with influenza, it has been there for a long time and many people have had influenza previously. And that gives some a kind of partial immunity and makes the virus less likely to infect everybody.
Q: What symptoms should people look out for, and why are some carriers asymptomatic?
A: The disease has a spectrum of manifestations. The most benign component is when one is asymptomatic. That’s however a very transient state. People might be asymptomatic for a couple of days, but everybody that has a disease will become sick. There’s a spectrum, you can either have a mild case, which is very much like a severe cold or even a flu, or it can be more severe in which case you develop pneumonia. If you are asymptomatic, it’s unlikely that the infection would not progress towards becoming symptomatic.
The majority of symptoms are associated with lung infection. The minority of symptoms could be upper respiratory tract infections. Fever obviously is also a prominent feature, but can be absent in up to 10% – 15% of patients. Then you have other features like muscle pain and fatigue, which also seems to be quite a prominent feature. So we would usually say, if you have muscle pain, fatigue and difficulty breathing in or coughing, which are lung signs, then it has a very high likelihood that one should be testing for the disease. If it’s only upper respiratory tract features, one should still be concerned with it because it could be COVID-19 and get some special advice from a healthcare practitioner to make a decision.
Q: What age groups are most affected by the virus and tell us about the infection in children
A: Anybody can be affected by the virus but it appears that children are less affected. Some people who get the infection have a higher risk of becoming severely ill, mostly elderly people. The risk starts going up after 60 but the higher risk patients are about 70 years of age.
When children get infected, it appears that it is a mild infection and they seldom become very ill from the infection.
Q: If you self quarantine, what medication should you be taking? We’ve heard you should not be taking any anti-inflammatories
A: You don’t need to take an anti-inflammatory necessarily but it depends on your symptoms. Paracetamol is enough to treat the fever. For severe muscle pain an anti-inflammatory may help, but it’s the same treatment that you would be taking when you’ve got the flu.
Q: How does the coronavirus affect a pregnant women, since they are not allowed to take any medication?
A: That’s a difficult question to answer because I don’t think there is enough data gathered from some of the countries that have been affected by this virus, specifically with regards to pregnant women. If we use the information that we have from previous severe flu outbreaks, there is a possibility that pregnant women might be at an increased risk of becoming severely ill from it, but we don’t really know.
It’s also obviously a risk that if a pregnant woman has the infection, that she may transmit it to the baby as well.
Q: If you did not have a pre-existing condition, how long will it take you to recover from the coronavirus? And is it true that you may lose some lung capacity?
A: That is a difficult question to answer in terms of the lung capacity. Usually the virus lasts around two weeks, but for some people it might be shorter and for some people it might be longer.
Even if you have the flu, it lasts two weeks but you will still have a persistent cough that doesn’t want to go away. Some symptoms may last for longer in people who only have a mild virus.
With regards to residual lung damage, it is possible but I do not know whether we have enough information yet to decide whether that is a common phenomenon or not.
Q: What is the biggest misconception around the coronavirus?
A: One is that it’s just the ordinary flu, it’s not. It is more severe than flu. It also affects more people, so you’ve got increased numbers of people that are sick.
On the other hand, it is not a deadly disease that will kill 50% of people being infected. More than 80% of people only have mild to moderate symptoms. It is not something that’s going to kill everybody.
Another misconception is that you can protect yourself from flu or from coronavirus with a mask. That is not so, the best protection you can offer yourself is to keep a safe distance from other people.
We call it social distancing. Avoid gatherings and continuously practice hand hygiene. Those are the most important things, more important than wearing a mask.
Q: With infection rates climbing every day, I think people are a little freaked out. How should we be reacting? Is it time to panic yet?
A: We should definitely NOT be panicking. Panic has never ever been something that achieves anything. People should listen to the messages that are given out of how to prevent becoming infected and also how to prevent infecting others.
So take responsibility for the community’s health. If you’re ill, rather stay home until you’re feeling better and you don’t have symptoms anymore. If you’re not ill and you have been exposed in a high risk situation, get some information and advice. Rather stay away from other people and self quarantine until you have more information.
If you have been overseas in the last 14 days. You have to phone a healthcare person to find out what you should be doing.
Q: Considering that South Africa has the highest HIV-positive patients in the world, how safe are they?
A: With regards to HIV, it’s very important that people who have the HIV infection take their antiretroviral meds. If they take their antiretroviral therapy and their viral loads are suppressed, they are more protected against the virus and are less likely to become very ill. This is really a call to all HIV+ patients to make sure they take their medication. The medication is effective and if they continue to take it, that will give them a lot of protection.