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World Health Organization

Photo from Pixabay

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

A year ago, most of us were going about our usual lives, shopping for food, carpooling our children, occasionally eating out, going to a movie or a play, traveling with our families during Presidents’ Week, entertaining friends in our houses, and working at our job sites.

Today the only pursuit still left on that list is shopping at the supermarket. We didn’t know that within two weeks, our lives would start to change, and that a month later the entire world would be altered.

The change agent? The novel coronavirus was the villain, otherwise known as COVID-19. Seemingly out of nowhere, the virus launched itself onto the human population. Where did it come from? How did it start? Was China somehow at fault?

A World Health Organization team of scientists returned last week from Wuhan, China, considered to be the first place with a coronavirus outbreak. Dr. Peter Daszak, who has worked with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and is president of EcoHealth Alliance in New York, was a member of the team, and was interviewed about their findings by The New York Times.

They walked around the Huanan Seafood Market, which is regarded as the source and is still blocked off to all but disease investigators. According to Daszak, the Chinese are “absolutely petrified of this virus catching hold again.” They were following severe protocols of testing, isolating and quarantining even as they were working closely with the W.H.O group.

The market was closed on December 31 or January 1, and a team of Chinese scientists then went in and swabbed every surface, collecting over 900 samples. Many were positive, including some animal carcasses. “A farm with rabbits [that was at the market] could have been really critical,” Daszak said. Or bats, stray cats, rats, live snakes, turtles and frogs, all of which were there. There were 10 stalls that sold wildlife, some peopled by vendors from South China provinces where the virus is found in bats. Some of the earliest patients with the disease had links to other markets as well, and some had no links to the Huanan market at all.

The final hypothesis of the W.H.O. team, and the Chinese scientists who worked with them throughout their visit, was that the viral pathway was wildlife, through a domesticated wildlife link, into Wuhan. In particular, Daszak suspects bats, from Southeast Asia or southern China, of getting into a domesticated wildlife farm. The viruses then jump from infected animals on the food supply chain or from their handlers to the dense population of humans that buy the animals at the markets.

There are actually many strains of this abundant family of coronaviruses, and bats and other mammals carry them. The SARS and MERS versions are just a couple that spilled over the species barrier and infected humans. So inevitably there will be more after COVID-19, and they could even cause future pandemics. Aware of that reality, some infectious disease scientists are working to produce a vaccine that will nullify all coronaviruses. Researchers are calling for a global effort to develop such a one-shot vaccine or a super vaccine. There have even been some promising early results.

Coronaviruses were first identified in the 1960s, but were initially thought only to cause mild colds. Then in 2002, a new coronavirus appeared. That was SARS-CoV, named for severe acute respiratory syndrome, and it was deadly.

In 2012, a second species of the coronavirus spilled over from bats, causing MERS, which stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, first reported in Saudi Arabia, and today we have SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19.

As we now know from the graphic of the virus shown by the media, the virus has spikes, which are proteins on its surface. If an antibody can be formed that sticks to the spike, it can prevent the pathogen from entering human cells. A genetic molecule, created by BioNTech called messenger RNA, works that way in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against COVID-19.

Now we need a pan-coronavirus vaccine. It’s on the way.

Photo from Brian Finnegan Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci, left, and Suffolk County Legislator William Spencer, right, smile in front of the testing van. Photo from Brian Finnegan.

In honor of World AIDS day, Dec. 1,  the Dolan Family Health Center and Northwell Health dedicated a mobile HIV/AIDS screening van that will help bring testing and treatment services to residents throughout the North Shore.

The World Health Organization said it hopes to eradicate AIDS by 2030 and released new guidelines this year on HIV testing to improve access to and uptake of HIV diagnosis to help achieve that goal.

This mobile-testing center is another step in the direction of ending AIDS, with the ability to deploy on-the-go testing and counseling personnel to communities in need in Suffolk County.

New York State Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci (D-Huntington Station) was present for the unveiling.

“Utilizing this day to shed light on HIV/AIDS is crucial to raising awareness of a disease that affects so many throughout the world,” he said at the event. “I am thankful for Northwell Health and the Dolan Family Health Center’s commitment to informing and educating the public on the dangers of HIV/AIDS, and their commitment to preventing the spread of this disease.”

Diagnosis is one of the most crucial steps in eradicating AIDS.

According to a new WHO progress report, lack of an HIV diagnosis is a major obstacle to implementing the organization’s recommendation that everyone with HIV should be offered antiretroviral therapy.

“Millions of people with HIV are still missing out on life-saving treatment, which can also prevent HIV transmission to others,” Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO director-general said in a statement. According to the organization, 37 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2015, and as of mid-2016, 18.2 million people are receiving antiretroviral treatment worldwide.

The San Francisco Aids Foundation said mobile testing vans help increase early detection and offer more flexible times for people to be tested, for example, at night and during the weekend.

“As we continue to search for a cure, state-of-the-art screening technologies such as the mobile HIV/AIDS screening van will help limit the spread of the disease,” Lupinacci said. ‘It also serves as a symbol of Northwell Health and the Dolan Family Health Center’s dedication to eradicating HIV/AIDS in our region.”

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Huntington Hospital is taking preventative steps to ensure its patients know how to combat the Zika virus.

The World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a “public health emergency of international concern” this week, just days after three Long Island patients tested positive for the virus. The Centers for Disease Control issued a travel alert for anyone going to regions including South America and Latin America, and Huntington Hospital officials said they were making sure to educate their patients about the symptoms and steps to take if diagnosed with the viral infection that is being spread through mosquitoes.

Denise Naval, director of infection, prevention and control at Huntington Hospital, said that while there is currently no treatment for the virus, there are several precautions a person can take to fight off the mosquito-related Zika.

Naval said the virus is closely related to Yellow Fever, the West Nile Virus and the Dengue virus, which are all also spread through mosquito bites. She said the Zika virus is spread from the Aedes mosquito, specifically.

There are two types of Aedes species, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, but only the former currently carries Zika with it and it is not native to Long Island, she said. It’s most common in tropical areas of the world. The latter does not currently carry the virus and is found in certain parts of the United States, including Long Island, she said.

Naval also said Zika can not only be transmitted from a mosquito to a human, but also vice versa — from a human to a mosquito.

“Only 20 percent of people will get symptoms,” Naval said in a phone interview. “Eighty percent of people infected won’t even know they are.”

According to the CDC, symptoms from the Zika virus include a fever, rash, joint pain, headaches and more.

Once infected, the CDC says patients must get rest, drink fluids to prevent dehydration, and take medicine such as acetaminophen to relieve fever and pain.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced that the New York State Department of Health, in conjunction with the CDC, would offer free blood test screenings for individuals who have traveled to areas where the Zika virus is going on.

“We’re working closely with the CDC and local health departments to address potential cases of Zika Virus, and by offering free testing we are helping to stay ahead of this disease and protect the public health,” Cuomo said in a press release.

Naval said if anyone must travel to the tropic regions, where Zika is a problem, there are some key precautions they can take.

“Make sure to use bug spray with DEET; stay indoors with air conditioning if you can because insects prefer heat; and wear long sleeves and long pants,” she said.

Aside from a warning for all travelers to avoid these tropic areas, there is also an extra precaution for pregnant women, as there is an added risk for a child whose mother has the Zika virus while pregnant.

The baby can be born with microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder where a baby is born with a smaller head than usual, or other neurological and autoimmune complications, officials said.

According to the WHO, in countries like Brazil there has been an increasing body of evidence about the link between Zika virus and microcephaly. This specific brain disorder is linked to seizures, developmental delays in speech and walking, intellectual disabilities, feeding and vision problems, and more, according to the CDC.