15th April 2020
If, like us, you can’t stop scrolling live updates on the coronavirus pandemic, you’ll have seen a lot of unfamiliar terms out there. The speed and complexity of this time can be overwhelming, so we’ve put together this quick guide.
Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause infections in the respiratory tract – particularly the nose, throat and lungs. Not all coronavirus infections cause severe symptoms, and some can be as mild as the common cold. Coronaviruses have distinct molecular spikes on their surface, which can be reminiscent of a crown, hence the name “corona”.
COVID-19 is the name for the disease caused by the new coronavirus which emerged in Wuhan, China in 2019, called SARS-CoV-2. COVID-19 causes a range of symptoms, including fever, cough and shortness of breath. Most people present with relatively mild disease, but unfortunately, some people develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia and multiple organ failure.
When experts tell you to stay away from other, it’s to reduce the number of contacts each person has with other people. This will prevent people from getting sick and overwhelming the health services which will ultimately lead to more deaths. In the UK the order is to stay 2m (6ft) away from anyone you’re not living with and to avoid gathering in large crowds.
Quarantine is a more extreme way of stopping an infectious disease from spreading. When people are under quarantine, they are not sick, but might have been exposed to the virus. Quarantine involves isolating the person from contact with other people until we can be sure they are not infected. Quarantine differs from self-isolation, which is when people are asked to isolate themselves at home when they have started to show symptoms.
A pandemic is a disease which has spread rapidly across several continents or worldwide and infected a great number of people within a short time. It is important to remember that the word pandemic gives no indication about the severity of the disease. Historic examples of pandemics include the Black Death and the Spanish Flu.
If you drew the number of COVID-19 cases over time on a graph, you would draw a curve that rises sharply, peaks and declines as the number of infected people drops off. Flattening the curve means to spread that initial rise over a longer period of time so the curve doesn’t rise so sharply. The idea is that there would be less people in need of medical attention at any given time, which means health systems don’t become overwhelmed. To help flatten the curve, wash your hands regularly, avoid people you don’t live with and importantly, stay at home.
Herd immunity is an indirect way to protect people from getting infected with a disease. Simply put, the more people in a population that are immune to a disease, either because they have already been infected or through vaccination, the less likely it is that a “non-immune” person will get infected. This is because there are less possible connections between infected and non-infected people. Whilst on paper it sounds like it should work, every infectious disease is different, and not enough is known about COVID-19 to suggest herd immunity is the way to go.