Local health experts cautious on coronavirus but say most need not worry

Published: Jan. 23, 2020 at 10:20 PM CST
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China restricted travel for 20 million people in three cities Thursday as they try to stop the spread of coronavirus.

It is a strain previously unseen in humans, and it's caused 25 deaths so far.

U.S. health officials are keeping an eye on the situation, but say there's no need for the public to panic.

"It is an assumption that the virus is one new to humans. It's probably not new in the world," said infectious disease specialist Dr. Clifton Jones of Stormont Vail in Topeka.

The illness is believed to have started in Wuhan, China's animal markets.

Dr. Jones said there are probably a lot more animal coronaviruses than there are human.

In humans, Dr. Jones says coronaviruses actually are among the most common causes of the common cold - along with influenza. Like influenza, there are many different strains. The one behind this China outbreak is new.

"The main concern is it's difficult to predict a behavior," he said. "It's apparently more likely to cause severe lower respiratory infection than common coronaviruses, so more likely to cause pneumonia. It appears more likely to infect healthy people. The common coronoaviruses, common cold viruses that can occassionally cause pneumonia, healthy people are at very low risk."

Unless you travel to China, Dr. Jones says the seasonal influenza peaking right now in the U.S. poses a much greater threat than the novel coronavirus. He points to the 2003 SARS epidemic as an example. Of the 8000 people sickened worldwide, the CDC reports only 8 of those cases were in the U.S.

But expect doctors to be vigilant.

"When we see an individual, when we talk about travel - which we try to always do, we always do it in individual that present with respiratory infection because we'd like to know where they're coming from, if they're coming from somewhere else," Dr. Jones said.

The World Health Organization said Thursday the outbreak had not reached the point to be considered a global health emergency.

The U.S. Senate Health committee and Foreign Relations committee will be briefed on the situation Friday.