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Illness is out there, take steps to stay well

While the politicos of the world and concerned American citizens are keeping a close eye on the impeachment proceedings in Washington, D.C., something else is making headlines around the world.

A novel, or new, coronavirus is making a deadly impact where it was first identified in China, where 41 people had died of the illness as of Saturday. Hospitals there are struggling to handle the patient load, and the government is imposing travel restrictions on tens of millions of people in an effort to contain its spread. More than 1,200 cases have been confirmed in that country alone. American workers at the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan, the apparent city of origin, have been ordered to evacuate.

So far, only two cases have been confirmed in the United States — one in Chicago and one in Washington state. Both people who have the virus had traveled to China.

Experts such as public health officials and scientists have wildly different opinions about where the outbreak is heading. Some say it poses a low risk to most U.S. residents. Others believe its spread to this point has been grossly underestimated, speculating that tens of thousands of cases already exist that have not been officially diagnosed. It is hard to guess what might happen as this threat makes its way across Asia and around the globe.

A coronavirus is a pathogen that can affect mammals and birds. In humans, such a virus usually causes a respiratory infection. Those illnesses are generally mild, but in some cases they can be quite serious. In the case of 2019-nCoV, some patients are contracting pneumonia and becoming more seriously ill than they would with another, related virus.

Such viruses spread through the air, and it appears this particular one jumped to humans from another animal. Since 2003, two other viruses from this group have caused similar epidemics; they were the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome virus, which also originated in Asia and was better known as SARS, and the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, that struck in 2012.

Both of those outbreaks caused widespread fear, but they sort of fizzled out without causing a worldwide plague.

There is good reason to be concerned whenever a new pathogen is identified and is spreading. Although we have amazing medical technology, medications and vaccinations available to battle many ailments, we cannot be truly prepared for something that is totally unfamiliar. Disease outbreaks have killed millions of people throughout history, including the Black Death of the Middle Ages and the far more recent Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. It is estimated that it killed 50 million people around the world and 675,000 in the U.S., infecting about one-third of the global population.

Influenza, in various forms including viruses that infect birds and swine, remains a threat today, In fact, it probably is a far bigger threat to Americans today than the new coronavirus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu activity remains widespread this season in all states except Oregon, where regional concentrations of the illness remain. More than 7,000 Americans have been hospitalized with influenza since Oct. 1.

The CDC says the best way to prevent contracting the flu is to get a flu shot. It recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a vaccine.

I will admit that I have never had a flu shot. When I was very small, I experienced a severe reaction to a DPT vaccine and have to be very careful about vaccinations ever since. As a child, my vaccines were often broken down into smaller-than-usual doses, and whenever I have needed a tetanus booster, doctors have used a special, more simple serum for me than they do for most people.

As a result, I have been hesitant to get a flu shot. But I would definitely recommend that anyone who has no history or issues or allergic reactions to vaccines take that step in an effort to protect themselves.

But there is more we can do to prevent the flu. The CDC suggests the following:

– Avoid close contact with people who are sick, and keep your distance from others if you come down with an illness.

– Stay home when you are sick.

– Cover your moth and nose when you cough or sneeze.

– Clean your hands. Wash them frequently with soap and warm water. If those resources aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

– Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

– Practice other good health habits, such as cleaning frequently touched surfaces, getting plenty of sleep, eating nutritious foods, remaining physically active and drinking plenty of water and other fluids. These habits will help ensure your immune system stays in tip-top shape.

At this point, there is no need for us in the Ohio Valley to panic about this new virus, but it is always a good idea to take the proper steps to protect your health.

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