Is the deadly SARS virus back?

Public health officials around the world are worried about a new virus - that belongs to the same family as the deadly SARS virus - which plagued 37 countries in in 2002-03 might be resurfacing. The United Kingdom's Health Protection Agency (HPA) has confirmed that there is a fresh case of the novel coronavirus infection in a British resident who had travelled to Pakistan and the Middle East.

Earlier in September, the WHO had announced that they had identified a new virus in a 49-year-old Qatari man. But back then the director of Centre of Respiratory Infection at Imperial College, London said that the virus wasn't particularly dangerous at the moment. Since then, five people died of the virus in Saudi Arabia, two died in Jordan, two were being treated for it in the UK and one in Germany. The latest reports suggest that the virus has reached Pakistan and hence it might be inching towards India as well. The coronavirus belongs to a family of viruses which cause a host of diseases including the common cold and SARS.

Why we need to be worried

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The problem with viruses like this is multi-fold. Vaccines and medicines are usually devised after years of planning and studying a particular pathogen so that we can contain them. Unlike seasonal influenza, healthcare professionals have no idea how to deal with unknown ailments, the way it spreads and how to contain it. The last time the world faced a situation like this was a decade ago when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) broke out near Hong Kong where a local farmer died from the disease. In the next eight months, the disease affected over eight thousand people and caused 775 deaths in 37 different countries. The more worrying fact was that it had at its peak a fatality rate of 9.6% (almost one out of every ten people affected died) and despite the fact that the disease disappeared after early 2003, it's not believed to have been eradicated and the virus can still be lurking in animals.

How it spreads

The novel coronavirus also demonstrated a SARS-like ability to spread from one person to another through close personal contact. Transmission can occur through droplets produced by an infected person when they sneeze or cough. They can spread through the air or when a person touches a surface contaminated with the droplets. Unprotected healthcare workers were particularly vulnerable during the 2002-03 epidemic. It's believed that the coronavirus has most likely spread to humans from another animal most probably bats though the virus hasn't been isolated on any particular animal species yet.

While the virus doesn't seem to pose any particular threat to the public as of now, healthcare professionals are watching all the developments closely. Most European and American healthcare facilities have the facilities to perform a test for the new coronavirus but the problem is figuring out who to test. An even bigger problem is the virus spreads in nations with limited healthcare facilities and huge populations like India, China or even South Africa. That could really trigger a pandemic of epic proportions and ramifications.

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