By Kathryn Vale

Humans love a plague – it triggers some atavistic terror. But so far the most contagious thing about coronavirus is the worldwide panic attack it has provoked. It’s been a boon too to the depressed post-Brexit media. What can they report on now that’s half so exciting? Even floods and storms are a bit samey. Let’s pimp a plague.

Maybe it’s been picked up from bats or civets or snakes (past plagues have come from pigs, cattle, camels, horses, rats, chickens, monkeys). And always it has to start somewhere foreign (German measles, Spanish flu) before coming to get us – we virtuous innocents who happen to travel, pick our noses, cough and sneeze just like all other  humans.

The Facts
So here is the factual bit, generally well-reported across the media if you’ve been following:

1. The technical name for this virus is Novel corona virus or Covid 19 or SARS COV-2-2019. It is genetically 96% the same as the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus which peaked in 2003. SARS, though, made you quickly ill, so you knew earlier and could be isolated sooner.

2. Corona viruses are responsible for the common cold – they are numerous, ever-changing and much studied. As well as SARS we had MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) and one that decimated poultry stocks in 1937. They are very difficult to wipe out. The Common Cold Research Unit  (free home to honeymooning couples who didn’t mind being given the sniffles together) gave up in despair after about 50 years of getting nowhere.

3. This coronavirus is contagious  – but not on a par with other virulent diseases. The R0 infection rate (defined as the expected number of secondary cases produced by a single typical infection) is 2-3 for Covid 19, 10-12 for chicken pox, 12-18 for whooping cough.

4. Morbidity is no worse than seasonal flu: lots of people are exposed and don’t get ill at all; 82% of people who do develop symptoms get  a mild illness akin to a heavy cold or flu; 15% (mostly smokers, the already ill, the very young or the very old) become more severely ill; 3% get critically ill – hospitalised with pneumonia – and some 1-2%  die, as you would expect, but probably higher in China because of air pollution and smoking. 

5. There is no magic treatment. The hospital will supply oxygen to support patients’ breathing, keep them hydrated, inhibit smoking, and ventilate with machines. Drug companies are out there testing their ‘anti-virals’ in the hope of making millions by KILLING the virus    Maybe they don’t notice it rarely works for long – the bug just mutates – but let’s KILL anyway. Any vaccines are months away and, when they arrive, will be (like flu vaccines) already out of date. 

Any vaccines are months away and, when they arrive, will be (like flu vaccines) already out of date

For bird flu (2006) and swine flu (2009) the UK government is calculated to have spent an aggregate of £473m on the antiviral Tamiflu, sold by Roche, which the researchers not paid by Roche have dismissed as being less use than placebo, while making babies and old people more ill (see and for more details). 

6. Face-masks are useless. They don’t fit tight enough, leave eyes exposed, and need a filter (expensive and probably not that effective for viruses). 

What your mother told you
Then how should you protect yourself? It’s really all you know already – what your mother told you endlessly before you took charge of your own health.

As with other infections, adopt simple hygienic measures –

• Wash your hands with soap and water (not anti-bacterials—KILL! KILL ! to our detriment –which mess up the good bugs that your hands need to retain). Soap halves the under 5s death rate from cholera in Karachi, and it can help here too.

• Avoid touching surfaces or your own face. Cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze, and bin the tissue immediately; And wash your hands again.
• Avoid handshakes. I have my own no-touch greeting   ready for use: you can think up your own.
• Keep 1-2 metres away from sneezers.

Brace your immune system, which has been brilliantly designed to survive viral attack for a few hundred millennia, by 
• cutting out sugar (crashes your white cells); 
• staying hydrated (not with alcohol); 
• getting out in the fresh air and daylight; 
• exercising daily; 
• sleeping well  (bed by 10 30pm — the hours before midnight boost your in-house steroid rhythms); 
• eating real food which might have some vitamins and minerals in it. 

Vitamin C and zinc are good 
Getting stressed and working to the point of exhaustion (like doctors in Wuhan) is bad.

Paracetomol, Lemsip etc  are bad. The body’s best age-old defence against viral attack is a nice high fever. Go to bed, stay hydrated, and kill the bugs with your own heat treatment. In healthy adults, if you stop the fever, the bugs start to party.

And of course it helps not to be a smoker: if you are, you’ve already chosen your slippery path downhill with virus-friendly damaged lungs (it does what it says on the pack).

For most of us there’s no need to panic. Looking really spooky with all those suckers AND being best friends with bats, this year it’s Covid19 that’s out there. But some bug or other always will be.

Kathryn Vale is a retired GP who practised in London, Hastings and Hawkhurst for 30 years. The medical facts she sets out above are based on currently available information, with particular thanks to Dr Robin Murphy (USA) and Dr Russell Malcolm (UK).

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