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SARS-Like Coronavirus and Flu Prevention

Barry Michaels
March 06, 2013
Sars-like Virus

In last week’s blog post, flu vaccine ineffectiveness for the senior population was covered in detail along with comments and dialogue about epidemics, pandemics and inter-pandemic periods.  In the previous week the blog post examined a collection of respiratory viruses causing infections in winter and SARS.  For this week a variety of prevention and wellness news will be covered as well as the latest information available regarding the SARS-like virus emanating from the Middle East and infecting a family in the UK.  


SARS-Like Coronavirus and Flu Prevention


With the global search for clues regarding origins and spread of the coronavirus causing SARS-like respiratory infections (NCov-EMC) so far known to have infected 13 people (with 7 fatal) some interesting information has emerged.  We know that the virus has been able to be transferred from one person to another in the UK.  The small UK cluster started from the traveler who first visited Pakistan and then stopped in Saudi Arabia on the way home to the UK.  There back at home he passed the virus on to his 30-year old son who with cancer and a weakened immune system, died.  I turns out that he also passed it on to his wife, who thought she had a case of the flu and didn’t want to go to a doctor or make anything out of it.


One puzzle is why so few women have been infected in that of the 13 cases only 2 were women, one of them being the mild case just reported. In another instance, in a family of 3 infected men, neither the female caregiver nor her children came down with the illness.  Scientists are beginning to think they are possibly seeing the tip of the iceberg. The milder case points to the wider dissemination of the virus possibly masquerading as the common cold or flu with symptoms similar to other coronaviruses.


Like the 2002-2003 SARS virus which first jumped from the Chinese horseshoe bat, then to a civet cat and finally to humans, the current strain NCoV-EMC is believed to have taken a similar route.  Genetically while the new NCoV-EMC is very distinct from the SARS virus it is closest to a bat virus and with one of the Qatar patients owning a farm with sheep and camels this looks like the best lead.  While currently well under control, the specter of a masquerading virus presents the potential of a much broader outbreak putting SARS (NCov-EMC) on the watch list, with experts saying that they wouldn't be surprised if it appeared in the U.S.


But for now the greatest concerns looming on the horizon is the possibility of an outbreak H5N1 bird flu going epidemic and then pandemic.  Public health experts agree that this would be catastrophic requiring all the prevention strategies we can harness. The H5N1 virus also called avian or bird flu is an influenza A virus subtype that occurs mainly in birds, is highly contagious among flocks which can be blamed for mass die-off of bird populations. The H5N1 virus currently does not readily infect people, but infections have occurred with limited human transmission demonstrated.  Most of the outbreaks involving humans have resulted from people having direct or close contact with H5N1-infected poultry or H5N1-contaminated contact surfaces. With active surveillance programs in place infected flocks have been culled on a regular basis and infected persons isolated to prevent further transmission.


Common Cold and Flu Prevention and Wellness


Cold and flu prevention involves hand and respiratory hygiene, but this week we also learned that a person’s telomere length might be an indicator for how susceptible you are at becoming infected with the common cold and by extension the flu. We also learned that people following a Mediterranean diet were about 30 percent less likely to suffer from heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from cardiovascular disease and by extension improved immune function.  This includes eating a diet high in fruits, veggies, whole grains, olive oil, garlic, nuts, legumes, fish and seafood as well as small amounts of poultry, eggs, cheeses and yogurt.  There is also recent work that has found that quality and quantity of sleep has a dramatic effect on the immune system and how the body responds to damage and stress.  This work clearly points to the fact that sleep is critical to maintaining and rebuilding the body to a highly functional state and without it all kinds of damage appears leading to ill health and higher susceptibility to infection.


Telomeres are protective caps made of DNA proteins that are found on the ends of our cells' chromosomes. Some studies have found people who inherited longer telomeres may live longer and have better health during those extended years of life. We also knew that factors other than aging, such as chronic stress and poor health behaviors, are associated with shorter telomeres in older people.  Beyond telling us that seniors are more susceptible to infections and fail to mount strong immune responses (last week’s blog), it reinforces the accumulating evidence that psychological stress can adversely affect many aspects of immune function and make us more susceptible to infections. Aging is associated with a well-documented reduced efficiency termed “immunosenescence” of both our innate immune system (which provides an immediate response to foreign invaders such as bacteria and certain viruses) and the adaptive immune system that is responsible for antibody production, a response which takes several days to prime but is highly effective once activated conferring immunity. 


Skin Care and Wellness


The word "Hygiene" comes from the Greek and Roman mythology, Hygiea, who was the daughter of the god of medicine.  She was the goddess of health personified.  Hand hygiene also means keeping the skin of the hands in an optimum state of good health.  People with damaged skin stop washing hands because of skin dryness and painful exposed nerve ending. Damaged skin from strong chemicals, long periods of wet work, glove use and skin abrasion related to work, allow the entry of harmful microorganisms that can lead to infection or colonization by potential pathogens and contribute to allergic contact dermatitis.  There are many ways of maintaining skin health but harsh soaps and cleaning disinfectants can quickly damage skin.  For this reason, safe but effective soaps, restorative skin creams and a Holistic approach to hand hygiene is required when working in demanding environments such as food processing/service and healthcare settings. 


In order to be ready to battle the common cold, the next serious influenza threat and viruses that masquerade as something else; getting a good night’s sleep, eating right, reducing stress and washing your hands often is a good start.   Finally, don’t forget to enhance skin health with emollients and restorative creams.


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