OPINION

Should we be panicking about coronavirus?

I was 18 years old in 2002, when severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emerged in China, spreading worldwide and infecting over 8000 people, killing 774. Eighteen years later I'm again watching with interest as a new respiratory illness has appeared in Wuhan, China.

Like SARS, this new illness is caused by a coronavirus - a large group of viruses that can infect humans, animals and birds. When you catch the common cold, there's a good chance that it's a coronavirus that's responsible.

Obviously, SARS and the new Wuhan coronavirus are much more serious than the common cold. These viruses cause flu-like symptoms and fevers, respiratory problems, and can be fatal.

So far more than 50 people have died, and 2000-plus people have been infected. And a lot more people are scared that this is turning into a deadly pandemic like we'd see in the movies - a real life Outbreak or Contagion (I do love a good science/drama flick!). But should we all be panicking?

Probably not. Although it's still only early days, teams of researchers around the world have been working to better understand this virus and how it's spread.

It already appears that this virus is less severe than the one that caused SARS. Although a number of people have died from the virus, they are mostly elderly people who already had other health issues.

While the elderly, young and immunocompromised people may be at risk from severe symptoms, the average, mostly healthy person, is more likely to experience milder symptoms.

The fatality rate seems to also be far lower than that of SARS. And although the virus seems to be spreading faster than the SARS virus did, it doesn't spread anywhere near as easily as other viruses that we know about.

From early estimates, each infected person passes it on to between two and three other people. Compare this with something like measles, where an infected person can infect upwards of 12 others (so thank goodness for vaccination).

The best news is that, unlike with SARS, the emergence of this new virus was made public in the early days.

This helps with limiting the spread as travel can be restricted, screening programs put in place, and people are aware that they should take precautions.

Although the news reports can be scary, keep practising good hygiene, consider where and when you are travelling, and you'll more than likely be just fine.

Dr Mary McMillan is a lecturer at the School of Science and Technology, University of New England.