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COVID-19

No, coronavirus isn’t the same as the flu

Aches and pains, sore throat, fever -- although they may feel similar to those suffering from their symptoms, the novel coronavirus is not the same as the seasonal flu, experts have stressed. (Paywall Free)

No, coronavirus isn't the same as the flu
Photo: AFP

Mortality

COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, proves deadly in around 3.5 percent of confirmed cases.

While this is not the same as its mortality rate, given many people may be infected but not realise it, it is significantly higher than seasonal flu, which typically kills 0.1 percent of patients.

“There is still considerable uncertainty around the fatality rates of COVID-19 and it likely varies depending on the quality of local healthcare,” said Francois Balloux, Professor of Computational Systems Biology at University College London.

“That said, it is around two percent on average, which is about 20 times higher than for the seasonal flu lineages currently in circulation.”

Serious cases

But the true danger of coronavirus is unlikely to be the death toll. 

Experts say health systems could easily become overwhelmed by the number of cases requiring hospitalisation — and, often ventilation to support breathing.  

An analysis of 45,000 confirmed cases in China, where the epidemic originated, show that the vast majority of deaths were among the elderly (14.8 percent mortality among over 80s).

But another Chinese study showed that 41 percent of serious cases occurred among under 50s, compared with 27 percent among over 65s.

“It's true that if you're older you're at greater risk, but serious cases can also happen in relatively young people with no prior conditions,” said French deputy health minister Jerome Salomon.

Contagiousness 

Disease experts estimate that each COVID-19 sufferer infects between two to 3 others.

That's a reproduction rate up to twice as high as seasonal flu, which typically infects 1.3 new people for each patient.

Vaccine/treatment 

Salomon said that humans have lived with influenza for more than 100 years.

“We've studied it closely,” he said. “This new virus resembles the flu in terms of physical symptoms but there are huge differences.”

Number one is the lack of a vaccine against COVID-19, or even any treatment shown to be consistently effective. 

While some trials have shown promise delivering anti-retroviral drugs to serious cases, as well as some experimental therapies, their sample sizes are too small to roll out to the general population.

Hundreds of researchers around the world are working frantically to find a COVID-19 vaccine, but the development process takes months and is likely too late for the current outbreak.

Even if a vaccine magically appeared, getting everyone access it to it is no small order. Health authorities regularly complain that not enough people receive the flu vaccine to guarantee “herd immunity”. 

Similarities

But the new virus does share some characteristics with flu, notably the measures each one of us can personally take to slow the infection rate:

Avoid shaking hands, frequently wash your hands with soap and water, avoid touching your face and wear a mask if you are sick.

Such actions can limit new infections just as they can with the flu, gastro illnesses and other infectious diseases.

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MONKEYPOX

Semen ‘a vehicle’ for monkeypox infection, say Italian health experts

Researchers in Italy who were first to identify the presence of monkeypox in semen are broadening their testing, saying early results suggest sperm can transmit infection.

Semen 'a vehicle' for monkeypox infection, say Italian health experts

A team at Rome’s Spallanzani Hospital, which specialises in infectious diseases, revealed in a study published on June 2nd that the virus DNA was detected in semen of three out of four men diagnosed with monkeypox.

They have since expanded their work, according to director Francesco Vaia, who said researchers have found the presence of monkeypox in the sperm of 14 infected men out of 16 studied.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How is Italy dealing with rising monkeypox cases?

“This finding tells us that the presence of the virus in sperm is not a rare or random occurrence,” Vaia told AFP in an interview.

He added: “The infection can be transmitted during sexual intercourse by direct contact with skin lesions, but our study shows that semen can also be a vehicle for infection.”

Researchers at Spallanzani identified Italy’s first cases of monkeypox, found in two men who had recently returned from the Canary Islands.

The latest results reported by Vaia have not yet been published or subject to peer review.

Since early May, a surge of monkeypox cases has been detected outside of the West and Central African countries where the disease has long been endemic. Most of the new cases have been in Western Europe.

More than 3,400 confirmed cases and one death have now been reported to the World Health Organisation from more than 50 countries this year.

The vast majority of cases so far have been observed in men who have sex with men, of young age, chiefly in urban areas, in “clustered social and sexual networks”, according to the WHO.

It is investigating cases of semen testing positive for monkeypox, but has maintained the virus is primarily spread through close contact.

Meg Doherty, director of the WHO’s global HIV, hepatitis and sexually-transmitted infection programmes, said last week: “We are not calling this a sexually-transmitted infection.”

Could antivirals curb the spread of monkeypox?

Spallanzani researchers are now trying to ascertain how long the virus is present in sperm after the onset of symptoms.

In one patient, virus DNA was detected three weeks after symptoms first appeared, even after lesions had disappeared – a phenomenon Vaia said had been seen in the past in viral infections such as Zika.

That could indicate that the risk of transmission of monkeypox could be lowered by the use of condoms in the weeks after recovery, he said.

The Spallanzani team is also looking at vaginal secretions to study the presence of the virus.

A significant finding from the first study was that when the virus was cultured in the lab, it was “present in semen as a live, infectious virus efficient in reproducing itself”, Vaia told AFP.

Vaia cautioned that there remained many unanswered questions on monkeypox, including whether antiviral therapies could shorten the time in which people with the virus could infect others.

Another is whether the smallpox vaccine could protect people from the monkeypox virus.

“To study this we will analyse people who were vaccinated 40 years ago before human smallpox was declared to have disappeared,” Vaia said.

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