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Here's how to protect yourself from the Wuhan coronavirus while travelling

Aria Bendix , Business Insider US
 Jan 23, 2020, 09:01 PM
Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
  • The deadly coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, has now spread beyond the borders of that country.
  • Hundreds of millions of people are expected to travel to China for the Lunar New Year, which raises the risk that it could spread further. It can be transmitted between humans.
  • Health experts recommend a few precautions to protect yourself while traveling.
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.

Two weeks ago, Chinese medical authorities reported a mysterious new coronavirus in Wuhan, the most populous city in central China.

The virus has so far infected around 300 people and killed six.

At first, authorities suspected that the coronavirus - which likely originated in a seafood market - could only spread from animals to humans. But they have since confirmed that humans can transmit the virus to one other.

The coronavirus family is a large group of viruses that typically affect the respiratory tract. Coronaviruses can lead to illnesses like the common cold, pneumonia, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a potentially fatal illness that resulted in 8,000 cases and 774 deaths in China between November 2002 and July 2003.

The timing of the new outbreak is particularly worrisome, since hundreds of millions of people are expected to travel to China for the Lunar New Year, which begins on Saturday and lasts until February 8.

"Travel spreads this kind of virus like wildfire," Adrian Hyzler, the chief medical officer at Healix International, which offers risk-management solutions for global travelers, told Business Insider. "I think we're going to see cases popping up in cities all over the world."

South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the US each have one confirmed case, and two cases have been recorded in Thailand.

Ruobing Su/Business Insider

Here's how to stay safe while flying.

Avoid close contact with people who are sick — particularly those with cold symptoms.

Some people who contracted the Wuhan virus reported symptoms including a fever, chills, headaches, and a sore throat. A few said they had difficulty breathing.

Travellers should try to avoid contact with people that display symptoms similar to those of pneumonia or the common cold, such as coughing or runny noses.

"What we don't know is to what extent this disease can be transmitted by people who are only mildly ill," Eric Toner, a senior scientist at Johns Hopkins University, said.

"That's one of the things that we're trying to figure out right now."

Wearing a mask isn't particularly helpful, though it won't hurt.


Many people in China have lined up to purchase face masks, which have reportedly started to sell out at some stores. But Toner doesn't think a mask will do much to protect anyone's health.

"There's little harm in it," he said. "But wearing masks, except in the situation of a healthcare provider, has never been shown to be a very effective way to protect yourself from infectious diseases."

The American CDC warns travellers not to touch their eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.

Getty Images

Travellers should wash their hands frequently with soap and water, making sure to scrub for at least 20 seconds, the US Centres for Disease Control says. There are no vaccines to protect humans from contracting a coronavirus.

"There is no cure for this virus," Hyzler said. "If there is a vaccine, it'll take years."

If you're traveling to China, steer clear of live animals.

Photo by Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

Although scientists have traced the Wuhan virus to a local seafood market with live animals, they're not yet sure which animal spread the virus to people.

Recent research suggests the SARS virus in China may have spread to humans from horseshoe bats.

"Ever since SARS, there have been calls for improving or closing down the live animal markets in China," Toner said. "There's an awful lot we don't yet know, but it is fair to say that live animal markets are a threat not just to the people who work in them, but to public health more generally."

If you do become ill after traveling to China, report your symptoms to a health authority right away.

Toner said people who are ill and have visited China recently should tell a doctor about their travel history.

But restricting travel in areas that already have cases of the virus isn't likely to be effective, he added.

"I think they're doing the right things," he said of the Chinese government's response. "They are screening for patients or passengers that are coming in. They are trying to educate them to make sure they get care. They're trying to isolate them as soon as they start getting sick. These are the things that prevent a transmission."

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