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Coronavirus: What is Covid-19 and how to protect yourself from the outbreak

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the new strain of coronavirus, named Covid-19, a global public health emergency.

A man has his temperature taken at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan, 25 January. Photo: AFP

The death toll from the flu-like disease has passed 3000 worldwide. The disease appears to be spreading more rapidly outside China, where the virus emerged. Spreading infections in Iran, Italy and South Korea have prompted travel restrictions in New Zealand.

Read all the coronavirus coverage here

There has been one confirmed case of Covid-19 in New Zealand. Health officials are waiting on the results of tests on two possible cases.

Evacuees from Wuhan and from the Diamond Princess cruise ship have undergone 14 days quarantine on arrival in New Zealand.

What is Covid-19?

The new flu-like disease is now called Covid-19 (sometimes referred to as novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV).

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which cause illnesses like the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

What are the symptoms?

Many people with the virus have symptoms similar to the flu, and having the symptoms doesn't necessarily mean you have Covid-19.

It seems to start with a fever, followed by a dry cough. After a week, it leads to shortness of breath and some patients require hospital treatment.

Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing - this is a sign of possible pneumonia and requires immediate medical attention.

The World Health Organisation's latest reports show 80 percent get only a mild illness, 14 percent experience more severe disease, and 5 percent become critically ill. It's not certain how long symptoms take to appear after a person has been infected, but WHO assessments suggest it is 2-10 days.

Who is it likely to infect?

Suggestions are that children are comparatively safe from Covid-19. The WHO reports a majority of those infected are adults, with just 2.1 percent of 44,672 patients in China with confirmed infection below the age of 20.

Early reports also suggest that illness is more severe for people 60 years and older, and in people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease).

In more severe cases, coronavirus can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, multiple organ failure and even death. So far the death rate appears to be between 1 and 2 percent, which is higher than for the flu.

How is coronavirus spread?

Coronavirus, like the flu, can spread from person to person, by droplets from someone who is infected.

Droplet-spread diseases can be spread by coughing and sneezing and close personal contact.

When an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, they may generate droplets containing the virus. These droplets are too large to stay in the air for long, so they quickly settle on surrounding surfaces.

You can also catch the disease by contact with an object or surface with viral particles on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes, the ministry says.

WHO expert Dr Bruce Aylward said 10 percent of people who come in contact with an infected person contracts the virus.

How to avoid catching and spreading it

Good hygiene, regularly washing and thoroughly drying your hands, and other simple steps can help stop the spread, the Ministry of Health says.

These include avoiding close contact with people with cold- or flu-like illnesses and covering coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing.

Washing hands for at least 20 seconds with water and soap and drying them thoroughly, before eating or handling food, after using the toilet, after coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose or wiping children's noses or after caring for sick people can help prevent spreading the disease.

Watch: handwashing technique

The Ministry of Health's public information campaign is focusing on handwashing as a simple way to protect yourself and your family.

People have also been warned to avoid travelling to some places - particularly mainland China and Iran. Check the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Safetravel website for travel advisories or to register if you are going overseas.

What to do if you may have been exposed

People returning form mainland China, Iran, northern Italy or the Republic of Korea in the last two weeks should self-isolate for 14 days from the date of departure.

The current travel ban prevents foreigners entering New Zealand if they are coming from or have transited through mainland China and Iran in the past 14 days. Those who have been to or are coming from northern Italy or South Korea in the last 14 days are now required to self-isolate.

The Ministry of Health says if you have the symptoms or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with the illness, phone the dedicated free Healthline number 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 from international SIMS) or your doctor immediately.

Read more here

What is the treatment?

There is no specific treatment for coronavirus, but medical care can treat most of the symptoms.

This could involve prescribing antiviral medication used to treat influenza or antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections.

What about a Covid-19 vaccine?

This is a new virus and there is currently no vaccine available. Researchers in many countries are working on developing one.

The annual influenza vaccine, usually available from April, does not protect against Covid-19. But health officials are encouraging people to get the vaccine this year, to help reduce stress on the health service if coronavirus cases started turning up at the same time as the winter flu season.

Should you wear a face mask?

Virologists are sceptical about the effectiveness of surgical face masks in stopping viruses carried in airborne droplets, but there is some evidence to suggest they can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says there is limited evidence of their effectiveness, but people should wear masks if they feel that that is protecting them or if they feel they may might have symptoms of any illness.

The Ministry of Health holds a stockpile of 9 million P2 face masks - respirators which are thicker than surgical masks and able to filter 95 percent of airborne particles.

- Sources: New Zealand Ministry of Health / ABC / BBC / Reuters

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