Mon | Mar 30, 2020

Alfred Dawes | The dangers of the coronavirus

Published:Wednesday | February 5, 2020 | 12:08 AM

The New year has begun with a bang. We were certain we would be in the early throes of World War 3 by now, and barely had the dust settled when we heard about the origins of the next killer virus in China. The virus, first seen in Wuhan, is similar to other viruses that cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome.

The symptoms are initially mild and are similar to any other upper-respiratory infection, including runny nose, coughing, sore throat, and sometimes a fever. It is difficult to tell in most cases whether you have a coronavirus or another cold-causing virus, such as rhinovirus. The danger with this virus is that the incubation period of up to 14 days is much longer than the incubation period of two to five days seen with other coronaviruses. This means that you may not see any of the symptoms, even mild, up to 14 days after the virus infected your body through your eyes, nose or mouth.

This ‘perfect virus’ broke out at the ‘perfect time’. The Chinese New Year celebration is the biggest holiday in the country. Many workers in the cities use this as their one opportunity for the year to visit their homes all over China. All of China virtually shuts down as hundreds of millions of people pile into trains and buses to head home before reversing the journey. Many of those persons were showing mild symptoms or none at all. The result, provinces all over China now have confirmed cases of Wuhan coronavirus. Travellers have spread the virus beyond China’s borders to several countries.

Some good news

The virus is fatal in only two per cent of those infected. This is much better for us than SARS (10 per cent) or Ebola (40 per cent). Yet the panic seen the world over is not relative to the danger of this ‘not-so-killer-virus’, it is fear of the unknown. The danger with the coronavirus is that panic it will cause if it gets here. This is made infinitely worse by the rapid dissemination of fake news via social media.

It was not too long ago that it was a plane that crashed off the coast of Port Antonio that brought chik-V to Jamaica. There was a huge cover-up by the Government as it could not have been mosquitoes that were carrying the infection. Why? Because mosquitoes can’t fly from St Thomas to Westmoreland, and many people with chik-V never remember being bitten by a mosquito. As the misinformation went viral, the ministry of Health did not help its credibility by reporting the tiny number of confirmed cases while thousands of Jamaicans were crippled by the disease. The conspiracy theories took hold because many people did not trust the Government.

This sadly worsened in the panic that ensued when it was rumoured that there was a patient at the University Hospital who was in isolation because of suspected Ebola. I remembered as president of the Jamaica Medical Doctors’ Association being asked by a ministry official to help to quash the rumour. I visited the patient who was a colleague, and after a long chat, gave several interviews to the media reassuring the public that all was well and it was not Ebola that I was exposed to.

One Nigerian visitor to a rural hospital was not so fortunate to receive treatment, as the medical staff ran away from him when they heard about his symptoms and his nationality. It took the intervention of the senior medical officer to restore order to the emergency department and facilitate treatment of the patient. All over Jamaica there were rumours of Ebola cases popping up from hotels to airports, and of course there was a Government cover-up. The fake news did more damage than the virus thousands of miles away in West Africa.

As we gear up to combat the novel coronavirus in Jamaica, we must remember that it is not only the treatment of the virus that is important. We must address the credibility of the health authorities and the spread of fake news before they go viral. Whereas official figures must report confirmed cases, we cannot discount reports of persons displaying symptoms without positive tests. The last administration with chik-V and the present administration with dengue have made this grave mistake and ended up being bogged down defending their credibility instead of combating misinformation and empowering the public with knowledge.

In reporting on epidemics, the face of the health authorities must be credible. Simply stating how widespread the suspected cases are will do a lot more to help with the fight against the diseases than downplaying possible extent in light of few confirmed cases. You must know your audience. They will not receive that message if they are seeing many suffering from what may or may not be the disease in question. They begin to question what you say. And when you are no longer the trusted expert, that circulating voice note becomes the truth.

As a people we must not be quick to jump to conclusions about everything shared on social media. Some will create fake news to create panic for no reason. For others, it will be playing political football.

In the end there are experts employed for the sole reason to keep us safe from these viruses and to limit the harm they cause. Have a bit more faith in them than that forwarded message by an anonymous author.

- Dr Alfred Dawes is a general, laparoscopic and weight loss surgeon; Fellow of the American College of Surgeons; former senior medical officer of the Savanna-la-Mar Public General Hospital; former president of the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association. @dr_aldawes. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and adawes@ilapmedical.com