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What can past viral outbreaks teach us about the coronavirus?

Researchers recently reviewed the basics of how public healthcare should respond to global virus outbreaks to aid the current response to the coronavirus.

Since the first report of the coronavirus (COVID-19) was announced at the end of 2019, global news coverage of the virus has followed at every step. Not all information about COVID-19 has been completely accurate, especially those spread through social media. With this spread of less than accurate reports, global fears about COVID-19 have grown. Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine analyzed responses to previous global viral outbreaks and their impact, current responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, and reviewed the basic principles of how public healthcare should respond to global infectious viruses.

For comparison of the current COVID-19 outbreak, researchers reviewed reactions and responses to the 2003 SARS outbreak. Initially, the Chinese government did not publicize the details and seriousness of the SARS virus, waiting four months before issuing a national bulletin for preventing the disease. 

Global pandemics, such as the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, can cause problems for those who suffer from other illnesses such as HIV/AIDS or malaria. Because so much attention and resources are diverted to the current outbreak, overall mortality rates can increase due to a lack of services available. 

Global viral outbreaks also impact the economy. Higher costs are due to the additional manpower required to treat the outbreak combined with less spending due to restricted travel and quarantines. It is estimated the three countries at the center of the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak lost more than $1.6 billion.

While the pervasive use of social media can be useful in tracking the spread and treatment of viruses, the opposite is true for valid, useful information, such as with the Zika virus. Fear-based information and social media posts can overburden healthcare systems and disrupt precautionary measures such as quarantines. The World Health Organization has termed this as an “infodemic”, which must be countered through multiple media platforms.

Public healthcare responses to viral outbreaks are tackled by a complex combination of health organizations, governmental agencies, and philanthropic organizations. These groups work together in a cycle of data exchange about potential outbreaks and guidance for identifying cases and providing treatments. To comprehensively treat potential outbreaks, these groups must work together to identify, characterize, and contain outbreaks.

For the COVID-19 outbreak, the initial public health response was slow or incomplete, which hinders the ability of doctors to determine whether COVID-19 remained as a local epidemic or a global pandemic. However, when compared to the 2003 SARS outbreak, initial reporting of the virus was much faster, and the pathogen was identified and isolated rapidly. Government response also rapidly stopped public transport, implemented screening checkpoints, and travel restrictions to contain the spread of COVID-19.

In a press release Dr. Christopher J. Greene, MD, MPH, assistant professor of global health and international emergency medicine, University of Alabama Birmingham and lead study author said, “Misinformation can spread just like a virus, obscuring communication from the international health community to medical professionals and the public. Everyone would like to avoid a scenario where anxiety drives public behavior change. Effective public communication helps ensure compliance with quarantine directives or other instructions. It’s important for health professionals to break through the noise to encourage people, especially those potentially at risk, to take appropriate precautionary measures and heed the recommendations of health professionals.”

Written by Rebecca K. Blankenship, B.Sc.


Greene, CJ, Burleson, SL, Crosby, JC, Heimann, MA, Pigott, DC. Coronavirus disease 2019: International public health considerations. JACEP Open. 2020; 1– 8.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

Rebecca Blankenship BSc
Rebecca Blankenship BSc
Rebecca Blankenship is a freelance technical writer. She reviews, edits, and authors internal quality documentation required for regulatory compliance. She has twenty years experience in industrial pharma/medical device quality management systems and an honors BSc in chemistry. She is a natural born rule follower and enjoys applying this strength to help others be audit ready to meet regulatory requirements. She also loves learning about the latest scientific discoveries while writing for Medical News Bulletin. Her free time is spent as a full-time mom, encouraging can-do attitudes and cooperation in her three children.


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