Coronavirus infection and ME/CFS | 11 February 2020


Dr Charles Shepherd, Hon. Medical Adviser, ME Association.

Coronavirus infection and ME/CFS

The chances of someone with ME/CFS contracting this new strain of coronavirus, or even coming into contact with someone who has the virus, are almost zero here in the UK at the moment.

However, the worldwide situation is getting progressively more serious and changing every day, especially in relation to foreign travel restrictions.

I have prepared some key information on both the virus and the prevention of infection – based on what we know, and do not know in the current situation. This information will be updated as the situation changes.

The coronavirus

It appears that this is a virus that has spread from animals (possibly bats or pangolins) to the human population in the Wuhan region of China where the main focus of infection originated.

Not surprisingly, sporadic cases are now being increasingly reported in countries like Singapore where people from China have visited.

Sporadic cases are also being reported here in the UK and in other parts of Europe – again linked to foreign travel or contact with someone who has been abroad.

The virus is spread from person to person by tiny viral containing droplets in the air – transmitted via coughing and sneezing.

The time between contracting the infection and developing symptoms appears to range from a few days to about 2 weeks – during which time an infected person will be passing on the virus even though they may not have any symptoms.

This is why people returning from China, or those who are at high risk for other reasons, are being placed in isolation/quarantine for 14 days and are told to remain in their homes for the duration.

The virus is spread from person to person by tiny viral containing droplets in the air – transmitted via coughing and sneezing.

As with most viral infections, there is a range of severity if someone picks up the infection:

  • Some people experience very minor symptoms or no symptoms at all,
  • Most people have a cluster of flu like symptoms – fever, malaise, sore throat – along with a dry cough and manage to fight off the infection,
  • A minority develop a much more serious infection involving the lungs, which can quickly progress to pneumonia and even prove fatal.

At the moment the mortality rate appears to be around 1 to 3 in every 100 people who are taken ill – which makes it far worse than flu, where the mortality rate is closer to 1 in every 1000.

Most of those who develop a more serious infection are elderly, have a long-term health condition, or are unable to mount a good immune defence.

As ME/CFS involves immune system activation, rather than immune system deficiency, there are theoretical reasons to indicate that having ME/CFS does not place someone at being at increased risk of catching this virus. But if you do, as with any infection, the effects are likely to be more serious.

Taking steps to avoid catching Coronavirus, or any other flu-like virus at this time of year, are important. At the moment the view from virologists is that every person who contracts the virus is then passing it on to another 4 or 5 people – so it’s a fairly infectious virus when it comes to person to person spread.

Prevention of spread

As with flu viruses at this time of year, there are a number of simple practical precautions that will help to reduce the chance of picking up this infection.

Infection containing droplets from coughs and sneezes stay in the air for a short time and then land on surfaces where they can remain infective for several hours, possibly even longer.

The first step involves avoiding (where possible) crowded places – such as public transport – where people are coughing and sneezing.

The second involves washing your hands when you have been in contact with a surface that lots of other people have been touching.

In particular are things like public toilets, cash machines, the trays that are used for security checks in buildings and airports, and also shaking hands!

Thorough hand washing with soap and warm water after contact with potentially infected surfaces is more effective than using antiseptic wipes – which are still useful if you are out and about.

Cheap face masks are of no real value as the viral particles are minute and can only be kept out of the mouth and nose and eyes (which are another route for infection) by the sort of masks used by health workers.

Foreign travel

The situation here is changing quite rapidly as new cases appear in countries outside China. The UK Foreign Office is providing regular updates on the situation regarding non-essential to travel to countries where cases are occurring.

If anyone with ME/CFS is going to be travelling abroad, especially if passing through somewhere like Singapore, Thailand or Hong Kong, you need to check on current guidance – as you may find that you are going to have to put yourself in self-imposed quarantine for 14 days on either arrival at the destination or on return to the UK.

Unfortunately, airports and aeroplanes are also fairly high-risk places for picking up infections, so serious thought should be given to planning trips to far off places at the moment.

More information

Image credits: 123RF/thevisualsyouneed

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