How does a viral illness spread swiftly around the world?

The novel coronavirus, officially called SARS-CoV-2, is responsible for COVID-19, the respiratory illness ravaging the globe. In addition to being highly contagious, the disease has no cure. Medical professionals can only offer comfort measures such as respiratory support, hydration and pain relief to those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

According to Dr Marc Lipsitch, epidemiologist and director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, insufficient testing is one major factor fueling the swift spread of the novel coronavirus.

There is also a lack of preventive actions such as social distancing and the use of face coverings. COVID-19 mimics the flu, making detection harder, and the virus can be transmitted before symptoms appear. As doctors and scientists search for a cure, the pathogen continues to spread worldwide, spurred on by transmission from those who have been infected. Several vectors of transmission have been identified, along with behaviours that can minimise infection rates.

Lack of Preparedness

According to Dr Lipsitch, the lack of testing has been one of the primary engines of transmission, especially in the United States. Undetected transmission rates soar without adequate testing to identify which people are infected with the virus. He identifies the severe shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line medical personnel as another factor that is allowing SARS-CoV-2 to spread rapidly, and there are also shortages of essential reagents and swabs for testing kits.

As a result, "We have no idea how many people are infected with the coronavirus or how fast the virus is spreading."

The Spread of Infectious Respiratory Droplets

One reason COVID-19 has exploded so rapidly across the world is that it is highly contagious. The primary vector of transmission is contact with respiratory droplets deposited in the air from infected individuals nearby who sneeze, cough or even speak.

Droplets can also land on surfaces, where the virus remains active for up to 72 hours. Touching contaminated surfaces can transmit the virus to a person's hands, and the virus easily enters the body when touching anywhere near the eyes, nose or mouth.

Initial Diagnoses of Seasonal Flu

The novel coronavirus also had a chance to spread throughout the world's population because it mimics the seasonal flu virus. The first several cases were thought to be the flu because many symptoms were the same: coughing, shortness of breath, muscle aches, fever and diarrhoea.

When pneumonia was diagnosed in several cases, doctors initially assumed patients had complications from the flu. By the time the SARS-CoV-2 virus was identified, it had most likely already spread to six continents.

Undetected Transmission

As more cases appeared around the world, health professionals began to strongly suspect that some COVID-19 patients were asymptomatic carriers. It was eventually revealed that some infected people had only mild symptoms and others had no symptoms for up to 14 days before succumbing to the illness.

Meanwhile, the virus had continued to spread, as many of those who were infected continued to work, shop and socialize.

Lack of Social Distancing

As more COVID-19 cases were reported, the lack of a cohesive worldwide plan to deal with the pandemic resulted in people continuing to behave normally: congregating in groups, shaking hands, standing close together, hugging and kissing.

Even after social distancing was implemented, the virus continued to spread unchecked in areas where people live in close quarters that make it difficult to achieve the necessary separation.

Unprotected Essential Workers

During the pandemic, essential employees have continued to provide healthcare, food, transportation and delivery services. Unfortunately, many of these vital workers have not had adequate protection from infection.

Hand sanitiser, disinfectant wipes and face masks have been difficult to obtain, and many employers have failed to provide them to those on the front lines. These workers are not only at a higher risk of infection, but they are more likely to infect others.

What You Can Do to Slow the Spread

As of April 15, 2020, the novel coronavirus had infected over two million people worldwide. This underlines how important it is for all of us to behave in the right way. Behaviours such as the following remain the best line of defence against infection.

  • Maintain social distancing.
  • Cover your nose and mouth.
  • Disinfect all surfaces.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Use hand sanitiser.

Social distancing includes sheltering in place and leaving home only when necessary. Groceries, petrol and other staples should be purchased once every two weeks by one family member, and there should always be six feet between individuals.

To reduce the spread of infected droplets, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone wear a cloth mask in public. The CDC also advises people to disinfect all frequently touched surfaces in the home such as doorknobs, light switches, tables, electronics, toilets and sinks. One of the best ways to slow the spread of the virus is to wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitiser with a minimum of 60% ethanol or 70% isopropyl alcohol.

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