Health officials agree that there is a risk of a Coronavirus, also known COVID19, as pandemic. What does that mean? What is a pandemic? What's the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic? And should we be worried?
The word pandemic is alarmingly close to the word panic or pandemonium. Which, for me anyway, creates an image of people running screaming from zombies or scenes from the movie Outbreak. In fact, 'pan' originated from the Greek for 'all'. Pandemic means 'affects all people'.
What's the difference between a pandemic and an epidemic?
The World Health Organisation (WHO), defines a pandemic as the worldwide spread of a new disease. It doesn't necessarily include every country but is a disease that spreads over vast territories.
An epidemic is when an infectious disease is widespread at a particular time within a community.
A pandemic doesn't signify how dangerous the disease is, just how far it has spread. The critical difference between an epidemic and a pandemic is how far the disease spreads not how dangerous it is.
Have there been any other epidemics or pandemics recently?
Last year there was a measles epidemic in Auckland and later in Samoa. Despite fear at the time that measles would spread further, it was able to be contained by increasing immunization levels in affected communities. The outbreak lasted a couple of months, and then new cases ceased. It did not spread further throughout New Zealand or the Pacific islands and certainly didn't go global.
The term pandemic is most commonly used about influenza outbreaks. New flu strains emerge from nature and start affecting people. Because influenza is a respiratory disease and airborne, it spreads easily, so flu strains can quickly reach pandemic status.
This year the flu strain that is spreading is Coronavirus. We mainly fear the virus because we don't understand how to stop it from spreading, other than isolating people with symptoms. We've all heard about the plague and the Spanish flu, both of which spread rapidly and killed many. But none of us ever imagined something similar happening in our lifetime. Not in an age of handwashing, toilet paper, vaccinations and antibiotics.
What's being done to stop Coronavirus from spreading?
At the moment, the spread of Coronavirus is being managed by isolating infected and potentially infected people. This method was first practised in the 12th century to confine the spread of the plague (otherwise known as the 'black death'). There have in fact been 3 pandemics of plague in 541, 1347 and 1894. It was after the second pandemic, when an epidemic emerged in Europe, that ships were stopped from landing at the port in Venice and victims were isolated from healthy people. The initial period of isolation was thirty days, trentena, but this was found to be too short for stopping new cases. Increasing the isolation period to 40 days, quarantena, was more effective. This is where the term quarantine originated.
Forty days ago, it was early January. While it feels like Coronavirus has been with us for months, in fact, it's barely two. At the moment, Coronavirus is not considered a pandemic by the WHO, as it is present in only 25 countries. With 195 countries on the WHO's list, the disease must spread through many other countries before it can be classified a pandemic.
Until a vaccination is found, isolating cases is still the most effective way to prevent the disease from spreading. For the poor people stuck in apartments or cruise ships, 40 days (or longer) is going to seem like a death sentence. Especially in an age when we are used to instant answers and instant results. Knowing so little is going to add to their angst.
Should I be worried?
The mortality rate is being reported at around 2%. However, this comes with the caution that it's likely overestimated as more people may have been infected but not attended hospital so not been counted. SARS had a death rate of more than 10% and seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1%. People who are most likely to be affected are those living in poverty, older people or those with respiratory problems.
At the time of writing (20 Feb), there are no confirmed cases in New Zealand. It's at times like we can be grateful that we are an island with natural borders that can't be crossed by disease unless they fly in on an aeroplane. We can also be thankful that we can go about our lives pretty much free of the fear that Coronavirus is in the air around us. If it does make it here before scientists have developed a vaccination, then the best method to use to protect yourself is handwashing.
Will Coronavirus affect my Life Insurance?
If you already have Life Cover and you get sick and die from Coronavirus you will be able to claim on your life insurance policy. If you don't have cover and Coronavirus continues to spread with no vaccination, there's no guarantee that insurers (medical, travel or life) won't make changes that exclude it. At this stage, however, there's no indication that that will happen.
But don't wait, sort your Life Cover out today.