Threats to Global Health: Coronavirus and more

Threats to Global Health: Coronavirus and more

2020 kicked off with a parade of troubling news – out-of-control wildfires, talks of WWIII, floods, earthquakes, violent protests. But though all these things had us in a vice of panic, one silver lining seems to always soothe away the angst: these events are (for the most part) localised.

This is but one of the reasons why the 2019 Wuhan Coronavirus has triggered such perturbation worldwide. For an unknown pathogen creeping into our homes and attacking us is not something we’re really prepared for. But is coronavirus that bad? And what else have we got to fear this year? Let’s take a look. 

Coronavirus: the x, y and z

The coronavirus is not exactly a new virus. In fact, the name is given to a group of viruses which affect mammals and birds. The name stems from the Latin ‘corona’ which means crown and refers to the appearance of the virus under a microscope.

In humans there are seven strains of the coronavirus, the novel virus spreading at the moment is called the 2019-nCoV or Wuhan coronavirus. Other well-known coronaviruses are SARS and MERS.

The viruses cause flu symptoms and acute respiratory distress in humans. As of the date of writing this article there have been 427 confirmed deaths and more than 20 600 confirmed cases of Wuhan coronavirus across the world.

Though some news outlets warn against hysteria and outrage may have been exaggerated on other platforms, it is crucial to look at the numbers. Whereas SARS affected just over 8 000 people and claimed 774 lives over a period of 8 months, the novel coronavirus has already proven more ubiquitous than SARS.

As with some other outbreaks, the problem seems to be the delayed onset of symptoms and diagnosis, which has allowed the virus to spread across the world and hindered containment. Chinese authorities have received scorn for seeking to silence Dr Li Wenliang of China who had issued an online warning to colleagues to quarantine cases presenting symptoms of coronavirus. It’s problematic in that a virus which may have been limited to epidemic proportions has now been classified by many scientists as a possible pandemic.

In order for a virus to be classified a pandemic, it needs to affect multiple regions of the world and not merely people who have travelled from the epicentre of the disease to other world regions. Unfortunately this seems to have already occurred, with the first case of person-to-person spread outside mainland China recorded in the USA on 30 January 2020. Two deaths as a result of the virus have been recorded outside China thus far – one in Hong Kong and one in Singapore.

But let’s hold up there for a moment. It’s important to keep all the numbers in perspective. Scientists have come to believe that in the case of SARS, many mild cases of infection were never recorded, whereas swifter action and international media focus will necessarily see more reported cases of 2019-nCoV.

It is not necessarily a new thing. Statistics have been known to shoot up or appear warped over time as ease and prevalence of reporting and accessibility to data changes. In all likelihood, worldwide collaboration and intervention in epidemiology will continue to occur at swifter with time and the public are bound to have more access to data.

Specialists have stated that the coronavirus is generally only fatal in people with compromised immune systems or poor access to healthcare and sanitation. Most of the reported cases of the virus have been effectively treated and patients discharged.

How to stay safe

Officials have stated that it’s imperative to maintain proper sanitation and seek medical attention should individuals present with any flu-like symptoms. For the moment, of course, it’s safer to delay travel plans to mainland China and the Hubei province in particular if your travel is not crucial. Though there is currently no vaccine for 2019-nCoV, many individuals have been successfully treated with a cocktail of antivirals and immune-boosting medications.

Other threats

By far the greatest threats to human health are diseases which have been with society for a while and those for which a suitable vaccine or treatment has not been found.

Mosquito-borne diseases

Sadly, while the world has been focusing on the coronavirus, there have been far more cases of mosquito-borne diseases worldwide. The four types of mosquito-borne diseases include protozoa (malaria), myiasis (botfly parasites), helminthiasis (filariasis worms) and viruses (viral diseases such as zika virus, dengue fever, encephalitis, yellow fever and West Nile virus).

In January 2020 the CDC issued a travel alert for individuals travelling to Burundi and neighbour states as the 2019 death toll reached 3 170 with an estimated 8.5 million recorded cases (the highest number in five years).

But it seems malaria has become such a common disease that it seems travellers may becoming rather lax in preventing infection. For unlike other diseases, one needs to take malaria medication for a set period before, during and after travelling through a region known for malaria. Unfortunately the taking of medication is further curtailed by fear mongering around medication (masking of symptoms) and due to unfortunate side-effects of the medication.

In Paraguay alone, an outbreak of dengue fever has seen 35 801 reported cases of the virus in January 2020. In Mexico, reported cases of dengue fever are up 62.7% in January 2020 (year-on-year), the Americas saw 3 million reported cases over the course of a year and there have been 8 435 reported cases in Sri Lanka this January.

Of course, the difference between Dengue fever and coronavirus is certainly the way it is spread. For while coronavirus is contagious, Dengue fever is not. Still, it is paramount that Dengue fever be identified, as mosquitoes can spread the disease from one person to another and thus it is generally far harder to isolate the culprits than it is to quarantine a group of infected people.

Outbreaks of yellow fever are down worldwide, and much of this has been attributed to proper immunology and also governmental intervention which demands immunisation before individuals may travel to certain regions. As we have seen, however, instances of encephalitis, chikungunya and zika virus tend to spike every now and then as individuals don’t take the necessary precautions to prevent the diseases or limit mosquito bites.

How to stay safe

If you are travelling to a region known to have mosquito-borne diseases, the best bet is to take vaccines and medication as prescribed. Also remember your mosquito repellent and be cognisant of symptoms such as headaches, fever, nausea, pain behind your eyes and skin rashes. Seek medical attention as soon as any symptoms arise. Individuals who are pregnant are advised not to travel to such regions if possible.

Measles

It is disheartening in this day and age that a disease for which there is an effective vaccine would still be claiming so many lives, and yet it is a reality. In 2019 there were 364 808 reported cases of measles around the globe, which is more than double recorded in 2018. The most noteworthy outbreaks in 2019 were in Brazil, Madagascar, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, the Philippines, Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo, Samoa and Thailand.

More crucially though, while the disease was thought to have been eradicated in the USA in 2000, there were 465 recorded cases in 2019, nearly a third more than the year before. In New York City, there were 285 cases of measles reported in 2019, compared to merely 2 in 2017. The CDC therefore warned that one of the greatest threats to health is not necessarily the existence of diseases and pathogens, but the obstruction of preventative measures.

The greatest problem seems to be the fear of immunisation, with the spread of misinformation around vaccine-related ‘injuries’ or more specifically, the fear that the MMR vaccine causes autism – a myth which has been debunked by scientists worldwide. The threat is not usually very high for people with healthy immune systems, but for those with compromised immune systems; the elderly, babies, people with autoimmune diseases who cannot use vaccines and those who are already suffering other diseases or are affected by other viruses, infection is often fatal. Sadly, these people usually cannot take the vaccines and rely on others to seek preventative care. The problem is therefore one of social responsibility and not necessarily personal hygiene and health awareness.

The greatest outbreak of measles in 2020 is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the World Health Organisation warned in January 2020 that it is the world’s largest and fastest spreading epidemic, with 310 000 cases recorded since the start of 2019 and more than 6 000 deaths. Unlike the first world, the problem in the DRC seems to be the lack of healthcare infrastructure, attacks on healthcare centres and limited access to healthcare in general which promotes the spread of the virus.

Worldwide, however, it is telling that the number of fatalities from measles is estimated at 110 000 – a far bigger threat than coronavirus at present.

How to stay safe

The best way to stay safe is to ensure that your vaccinations are up to date and to improve your immunity through a healthy diet and proper hygiene. Also try to limit exposure to large groups of people for those who are immunocompromised, especially if there is talk of a virus or disease in the region.

Polio

Another disease which has sadly reared its ugly head once more is polio. But unlike measles, which can be effectively controlled by vaccination, recent cases of polio reported in Africa seem to be specifically linked to the vaccine itself. This presents a catch-22 situation, but it is imperative that users understand what a vaccine-derived disease really is as various news outlets and propaganda sites are guilty of spreading false information about the issue.

Firstly, it is important to note that vaccine-derived disease does not occur in regions where proper vaccination and sanitation is maintained. A vaccine-derived disease is spread through fecal matter from those who have been recently immunised. Since the vaccine contains an attenuated vaccine-virus aimed at activating an immune response in the body, the vaccine-virus necessarily replicates in the intestine for a while. During this time, the vaccine-virus is excreted. This is generally a harmless process, but in regions with poor immunisation and lack of sanitation, the vaccine-virus can be circulated and as it survives it undergoes genetic changes. In some instances the vaccine virus can mutate into a circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) which can paralyse those affected.

It is therefore imperative that individuals be vaccinated to prevent the virus from spreading further.

Other cases of polio have recently been recorded further afield, something which has irked immunologists. In Malaysia, for instance, the first case of polio in 27 years was recorded in December 2019. According to the non-profit organisation Polio Eradication, breakout countries (where the virus have been recorded since its eradication) include:

  • Angola
  • Benin
  • Cameroon
  • China
  • Central African Republic
  • Chad
  • Côte d’Ivoire
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Togo
  • Ethiopia
  • Ghana
  • Zambia
  • Malaysia
  • Philippines
  • Somalia
  • Myanmar
  • Indonesia

How to stay safe

Ensure that you are immunised against polio. When travelling to or through regions where polio is a known problem, ensure that you have proper alternate measures to ensure hygiene such as hand sanitizer, hygienic wipes, disposable toilet seat covers and fresh, sterile drinking water.

Sexually transmitted diseases

Sadly, some of the most preventable diseases known to man are STDs and STIs. Though civilization may be excused for not having suitably prevented the spread of STDs in the past, worldwide action in particular with regards to sexual education should have all but eliminated the spread of such diseases. Though the rate of transmission of some of these diseases and infections has decreased over the years, they are by far still the most widespread of the preventable diseases worldwide. 

The WHO estimates that there are approximately 1 million new infections per day across the globe, and 376 million new  infections per year.

Some of the greatest issues with preventing the spread of the virus include the lack of symptoms and willful ignorance. While many of the STIs and STDs don’t render any symptoms immediately, even when symptoms do present, individuals may think it is linked to some other disease, or may be too ashamed to seek help. Stigma around such diseases is leading to many individuals merely keeping mum while some even deliberately transfer diseases once they know they are infected – out of spite or apathy.

How to stay safe

Firstly, it is important to get checked regularly for STDs and STIs if you are an adult who has relations with other adults. Secondly, be vigilant and safe when it comes to sexual relations. Thirdly, educate your children on the hazards around diseases and how they are spread. Of course, one needn’t be explicit in one’s teachings and should maintain educational material suitable to the level of understanding and age of the child in question. But be sure to have ‘the talk’ once your child is ready for more information. Better safe than sorry.

Parasites and bacterial infections

Of course there are a myriad of other diseases and infections in the world and the spread and prevalence of these are usually linked to sanitation. Unfortunately it is also true that the spread proliferates in regions where natural disasters occur. Hurricanes, earthquakes, monsoons, mudslides, tsunamis and even volcanoes are said to increase the spread of parasites and bacteria which are harmful to humans.

Some of the most prominent of these include tuberculosis, bacterial meningitis, tick fever, tick bite fever, staphylococcus, cyclosporiasis (cyclospora cayetanensis parasite) and schistosomiasis.

How to stay safe

Whether bacterial infection or parasitic infestation, prevention seems to be best achieved through hygiene and awareness of infectious carriers in the regions you are travelling. Sterilise eating and working environments as well as bathrooms, only drink water known to be fresh and steer clear of individuals showing symptoms. Check your body for bites from insects which may carry bacteria or parasites and clean wounds thoroughly. It is also necessary to seek out treatment as soon as any symptoms present to prevent the infection or parasite from spreading further.

Influenza

Sadly, the CDC estimates that more people are affected by and die from flu worldwide each year than most other diseases. Consequently, it is also one of the preventable diseases which places one of worst burdens on government healthcare.

There’s not much we can tell you about the flu which you won’t already know. It is generally an easy disease to overcome, but the problem arises where people are left untreated or are immunocompromised.

How to stay safe

The easiest cure is prevention – get vaccinated and ensure proper intake of Vitamin C and other essential nutrients. Drink loads of water and if you are in an area where there is a high prevalence of infection, keep those sanitary wipes close by and avoid physical contact with others unless necessary.

Cancer

Unfortunately cancer is one of the most devastating illnesses and unlike most of the other diseases on our list, it is not necessarily preventable.

Cancer, of course, refers to a range of diseases caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body. There are more than 100 cancers known to date, and the cause and treatment for each disease varies, which is why ‘a cure’ is unlikely to benefit all known cancers even if such a cure were to be found.

Though there is certainly not one primary cause for cancer, there are definitely risk factors and activities or habits humans can avoid to reduce the chances of getting cancer. Unfortunately, a large chunk of cancer risk seems to relate to genetics. If it runs in your family your chances are higher, and people of certain races and ethnicities are simply more likely to get certain types of cancers, this includes: 

  • Breast cancer: caucasian women
  • Colorectal cancer: Ashkenazi jews (Eastern European descent)
  • Lung cancer: black men
  • Prostate cancer: caucasian men

Interestingly, though black women have a slightly lower chance of breast cancer than white women, statistics indicate that black women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40.

How to stay safe

Since there is no known cure for cancer, the only option is to lead a healthy lifestyle and go for screening, especially if you present any of the risk factors.

These risk factors include:

  • exposure to nuclear radiation (frequent x-rays or working with nuclear materials)
  • exposure to harmful chemicals (working with harmful chemicals, ingesting chemicals, etc.)
  • exposure to (and intake of) tobacco products
  • intake of known carcinogens (alcohol, high-fatty diets, chronic medication, plastic packaging and bottles etc.)
  • not having children (incidence decreases in women who have given birth)
  • using hormonal birth control medication
  • using hormone replacement therapy
  • obesity

It should also be noted that the HPV vaccine has been successful in preventing cervical cancer in women.

Heart disease

There’s no easy way to say this, but one of the greatest health threats in the world is heart disease. In fact cardiovascular disease is the no.1 cause of death with more than 18 million fatalities each year.

Of course there are a myriad of ways in which CVD can affect people, and since the onset of symptoms is often delayed and lifestyle changes not made timeously, it remains one of the most untreated of the preventable diseases.

How to stay safe

Though heart disease could run in your family, it should be noted that positive lifestyle changes are the no.1 cure for the disease. This includes:

  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • frequent exercise
  • getting enough sleep
  • eliminating environmental and mental stressors
  • quitting smoking
  • limiting alcohol intake

Unknown pathogen threats

In 2018 a study on airborne pathogens was conducted and confirmed some rather intriguing and alarming hypotheses. Scientists have long wondered how certain viruses and diseases could break out simultaneously on different parts of the world when there could not possibly be any way for the pathogens to have been ‘transported’ via human means such as train, plane, ship or automobile. The hypothesis was that some of these pathogens were quite simply taken into the earth’s atmosphere and ‘dropped’ to the earth via air currents.

The study confirmed that 800 million viruses per day are deposited per square metre above the planetary boundary layer.  The bulk of the viruses seem to be deposited down to earth through precipitation, and Isabel Reche, microbial ecologist from the University of Granada states that rain events are also less effective at eradicating viruses from the atmosphere than dust intrusions.

This has led many scientists to believe that climate change may be exacerbating the problem as more extreme weather events are being recorded. 

Another climate-linked alarm bell is the melting arctic permafrost. Many scientists believe that the ice which had remained frozen for centuries could host pathogens which may make a revival in years to come.

Jet-setting? Stay safe!

For those of our readers who travel around the globe frequently, we urge you to remain vigilant and abreast of matters as they unfold. The WHO and CDC maintain daily updates on their websites, and for worldwide threats such as the novel coronavirus, your regular news channels should keep you updated. But be prudent and seek out legitimate sources of information before making up your mind.

Now that we have you updated on not transferring viruses and diseases, Rand Rescue can at the very least assist you in transferring your funds. As with diseases, it’s important to choose a partner which is safe and efficient. If you want to discuss your cross-border finances, be sure to leave your details below and we’ll get back to you!

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