GREAT FALLS — The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday declared the outbreak of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus to be a global health emergency.
The health agency made the rare designation, acknowledging that the virus now represents a risk beyond China, where the outbreak is believed to have originated from late last year.
Chinese authorities reported on Thursday that at least 170 people have died in their country as a result of the virus and more than 7,000 infections have been confirmed. Meanwhile, nearly 100 cases have been confirmed in 18 other countries.
Six cases have been confirmed in the United States by the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). On Thursday, officials announced the first case of a person-to-person transmission in the U.S. In that case, officials say a woman who recently returned to Chicago from Wuhan transmitted the disease to her husband.
The cases in the U.S. are all people who had traveled to the Wuhan area. At this point health professionals are urging people who have traveled to Wuhan within the past two weeks and then developed a fever, cough, or have difficulty breathing to get medical attention.
Officials are also asking that if these criteria are met, that you contact your doctor before going in to see them or going to an emergency department.
"They need to have specific symptoms, they need to have traveled to the Wuhan area, or they have to have had close contact -- recent close contact with someone who is a confirmed case,” said Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services epidemiologist Stacey Anderson. “So, we have a lot of systems in place in public health to watch out for that.”
Anderson added that we are in the middle of cold and flu season here in Montana, and the best way to prevent the spread of either the cold, flu, or any virus, is through thorough hand-washing, covering your cough, and staying home when you're sick.
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Anne Stevens, an infectious disease specialist at Benefis Health System in Great Falls, explained that the speed at which the virus spreads is concerning.
“I think the dramatic spread of this is a very worrisome thing. We haven’t had too many outbreaks that have spread internationally like this one has,” Stevens said.
She added that even other coronaviruses, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) several years ago, didn’t infect as many people as quickly as the novel coronavirus has.
“It seems that those had fewer cases geographically. They didn’t spread as quickly as this one has,” Stevens said.
Another concern is that there is currently no means of treatment for the virus.
"There’s no actual specific treatment for coronavirus. For influenza we have things like Tamiflu and some other antivirals that specifically act on influenza, but we don’t have a specific treatment for coronavirus so it’s really just supportive care,” Stevens said.
The CDC website has more information about the coronavirus, including this overview:
- 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is a virus (more specifically, a coronavirus ) identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. Early on, many of the patients in the outbreak in Wuhan, China reportedly had some link to a large seafood and animal market, suggesting animal-to-person spread. However, a growing number of patients reportedly have not had exposure to animal markets, indicating person-to-person spread is occurring. At this time, it’s unclear how easily or sustainably this virus is spreading between people.