Nearly everyone in this country will be familiar with the catchphrase “Don’t Panic, Mr Mainwaring!” – but why should we be thinking this about the corona virus (now termed COVID-19), when media headlines are almost advocating the opposite?
With media headlines talking of “lockdowns” and deaths, it can be hard to sort the facts from the slightly sensational presentation.
It is obviously important to take a threat such as the corona virus seriously – but it is important to view it clearly too.
Putting corona virus headlines in perspective
My 30 years of occupational health practice has taken me through many previous threats including SARS, pandemic ‘flu (more than once) and the white powder scares of anthrax contamination across the postal service.
I have learned my lessons, and one of these has been to keep things proportionate and react with care.
Measles is a disease that we all know well. Despite being vaccine-preventable it kills 100,000 people each year with 49 deaths in Europe last year. In Madagascar alone there were 69,000 cases and 1,200 deaths in a single year! Recent years has seen an upsurge in cases as, even in the UK, the number of people refusing to take action and be vaccinated has fallen.
Each year, there are deaths from illnesses like measles, and also from the annual cycle of influenza – in the UK the Oxford Vaccine Project estimates that more than 600 people die each year from ‘flu complications, and this can spike far higher.
Yet, we do not see the same panic and concern arising from these that we are seeing with corona virus.
The problem with media labels
Corona virus, just like Flu or SARS can give serious illness and risk of death. Of course, it can spread – viruses, by their very nature, are designed to spread easily. They do so by creating novel or unusual combinations that fool our immune systems, and new or rare forms can spread rapidly.
The current corona virus is simply another form of flu-like illness – in fact it is from the same family of viruses that caused SARS.
The media loves to label things – and when illnesses start with an animal it gives them a convenient hook – bird flu, swine flu and bat flu are good examples.
The reality? ‘Zoonosis’, which is the transmission of disease from animals to humans, is actually quite common. Viruses often begin in animals and become more dangerous when they start to spread in humans – and they can be hard to differentiate as they behave like a bad cold or flu-like illness. The symptoms include a cough, fatigue and fever. It is quite possible and unsurprising that the current virus began in bats or snakes – now it is confirmed as spreading from human to human.
Much has also been made of the unfortunate timing of this outbreak. Coinciding with the Chinese New Year, it was inevitable that travellers would carry a virus like this to other parts of the world.
To date the vast majority of cases have been in China, and now we are already seeing a small number of cases elsewhere. But numbers can be misleading – based on the reporting of equivalent outbreaks in the past, mortality rates are often over-reported. Many with the disease will either remain undiagnosed or will recover without ever needing hospital care.
What about flu in the workplace?
Whenever something like this comes along, people talk about whether those with coughs or colds should take time off work. This really isn’t necessary.
The fact is that colds and flu are common – and the simple truth is that not everyone with a cough needs to see a doctor or be away from work. If someone is feeling simply too ill to work, that is one thing, because presenteeism does nobody any good. But over-reacting is quite another.
When you’re not well, a pharmacist can give advice about simple self-care and symptom relief – and it is far, far more likely that your sniffle is from a cold or another common respiratory virus. Most people catch something like this on average every 4-6 weeks.
Normal medical advice remains as true today as it has always been. If you have a cough that remains persistent, difficulty breathing or significant chest pain, then you need to seek medical help. Taking advantage of the NHS 111 helpline will get you the fastest possible response and advice.
With the current situation, there is an obvious additional advisory: If you have visited China or any significantly affected region, or had contact with travellers from there then it may well be appropriate to seek advice faster – the NHS hotline is an optimal choice there too, since you can stay put while you get input.
You can find the latest official UK advice and current list of significantly affected regions here on the Government’s corona virus information page. The latest health, wellness and personal hygeine advice is also available on the NHS corona virus page.
Everyone can act to reduce risk
Simple hygiene measures reduce the risk of all respiratory viruses – including corona virus. Regular hand washing, routine cleaning of surfaces using ordinary detergents and soap are quite enough.
From viewing TV images, you may imagine that buying paper masks is a smart move – but, while they are visible reminders, such masks make little difference in reducing risk of infection (and can in fact, in some circumstances, increase risk).
Don’t forget to simply act sensibly if you do feel under the weather. “Catch it, bin it, kill it” was the slogan promoted in public health campaigns. It reminds people to use disposable tissues to reduce the risk of spread from sneezing – and get rid of them, not leave them lying around. This remains good advice now, as always.
Staying fit and healthy is always good advice, for everyone. Viruses can often be worse, and symptoms stronger, if you are unfit or have other illnesses. Perhaps now is a good time to pay attention to this and take a few more simple and positive measures to improve your general health and fitness.
The overall message about the Corona virus is therefore to stay calm. Don’t panic, and don’t let lurid reporting worry you too much – either as an individual or an employer.
Taking your own health and fitness seriously and ensuring that you create a healthy and high-performing workplace that always takes employee health seriously, remain the best way forwards.
In the UK we have the luxury of an incredible NHS and excellent Public Health establishment. Their experts are monitoring developments closely and will advise you as needed.
Read our next article on why corona virus reinforces the need for excellent sickness absence and employee health management processes in every organisation