Let’s Talk: Coronavirus

There has been a lot of talk about coronavirus – but how much of what you have heard can you believe?

As a health journalist, I like to deal with hard facts, and as a mum I understand why this is such an anxious time for people.

So, I spoke to Dr Connor Bamford, a virologist from Queen’s University in Belfast, and asked him for his advice on how to keep our loved ones and little people safe.

1) What is your assessment of the containment of the virus to date?

Containment appears to working so far in the sense that a tremendous amount of testing is being carried out with only a relatively small proportion of positive cases being detected and the vast majority of those coming from travel-related instances from countries affected highly by the virus, such as Italy. The containment is however not expected to last forever and we will very much likely see a transition to the next stage as cases and in particular community-spread cases are detected more frequently.

2) Can you please explain the risk posed by the virus to people? Should people be frightened?

The risk is currently low to moderate but is expected to increase to a higher level. However, people should not be too frightened although admittedly this is a very serious situation and some people will get very sick and sadly die, and there will likely be large implications for the economy and society. Even in at-risk individuals, there is a greater likelihood that you would survive an infection and the vast majority of cases are mild.

3) What steps can people take to protect themselves?

Three simple things can be done, which include frequent and proper hand washing; catching coughs and sneezes into tissues and disposing of them;  and social distancing if you feel unwell. Doing these three things help prevent you getting sick and passing the virus on to the most vulnerable. Furthermore, continue being aware of the symptoms (fever, sore throat and dry cough) and remember to comply with any official advice from the government.

4) Are face masks a good idea?

Connor Bamford Mumbreakable Coronavirus

Face masks are not recommended for a number of reasons which include their relative ineffectiveness at preventing transmission in the public, the necessity to change them regularly and take them off carefully (with the risk of accidentally infecting yourself if the mask is contaminated); and in order to relieve pressure on their supply for instances where they are recommended, namely in the health sector for frontline medical staff and for surgeons or dental practises. Washing your hands regularly is much more effective than face masks with the added bonus of being safer and cheaper.  

5) How dangerous is the virus to children?

It does not appear to be that dangerous to children based on what we know so far, while we think children likely can get infected and pass the virus on to others. The issue around children is their capacity to potentially spread the infection around, which is the basis for school closures. It should be stated that there are examples of deaths in all age groups.

6) Are there any groups of people who are more at risk if they become ill?

Yes, while everyone likely can be infected by this virus, there is a spectrum of disease from mild, nearly asymptomatic to deadly pneumonia that requires significant support in a hospital.  There are examples of deaths in all age groups but the likelihood of serious disease leading to death is much higher in older individuals with underlying health problems such as heart or lung disease or even diabetes. Older individuals tend to have more underlying health concerns.

7) Are pregnant women and/or their babies at any greater risk if they become ill with Covid-19?

It does not appear to be the case but numbers are small so far. We know the most at risk people are older males with underlying health conditions. Children do not appear to be affected badly. Pregnant women should continue taking the same advice for everyone else to prevent their infection and/or spread of the virus. 

8) Is it inevitable that there will be widespread cases of the virus across Northern Ireland?

I think so unfortunately as the virus has spread well across the globe and looking at other countries it can be very hard to completely contain. As cases grow in the UK, NI and the ROI, and community spread becomes evident, undoubtedly we will move out of containment phase into a period where we will try and slow the spread of new infections down.

9) Coronavirus has been described as the most frightening disease ever seen. Why do you think this is the case?

I would not say frightening but it is certainly one of the most concerning infectious diseases of the last 100 years because of its ability to spread well between people and how likely it can cause serious disease and kill. Furthermore, an outbreak of any new disease for which little population immunity exists has the potential to damage health, social and economic infrastructure.

10) How does Covid-9 compare to Ebola, SARS and swine flu?

Corona Virus Mumbreakable

The virus that caused Covid-19 is called SARS-Coronavirus-2 and is a close cousin of SARS. The virus is very distantly related to both Ebola and the pandemic H1N1 virus from 2009/10 referred to as ‘swine flu’. SARS and SARS-CoV-2 as well as influenza are all respiratory viruses that can cause similar symptoms, while Ebola viruses cause a very deadly haemorrhagic fever, which is spread by contact with infected bodily fluids.

Influenza virus is spread very well before symptoms begin, was impossible to contain and has a relatively low fatality rate (<0.1%), while SARS was spread well only after symptoms set in, was stopped through containment, and has a fatality rate of at most 10%. SARS-CoV-2 lies somewhere in between both viruses in counts of fatality rate, means of spread and effectiveness of containment 

11) Is it safe to breastfeed while I have coronavirus?

There is very little evidence one way or the other but the high likelihood is that it is safe and recommended because the virus is respiratory spread and likely not found and able to be transmitted in breast milk. Furthermore, breast feeding might be able to pass on protective immunity to your new-born against the virus if you have been infected and/or exposed previously.