How Worried Should Canadian Parents Be About Coronavirus?

Right now, a Canadian child's risk of contracting coronavirus is extremely low.

Every day, there are more and more stories about the spread of coronavirus, a pathogen that causes cold- and flu-like symptoms and can sometimes lead to a life-threatening lung infection.

This version of the virus was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) in late December, and, as of press time, has killed 106 people globally. But it’s easy to get caught up in the statistics and overestimate just how big a threat we’re actually facing.

The current risk level is ‘extremely low’

For the last few weeks, Toronto pediatrician Dr. Dina Kulik has been fielding questions about coronavirus from concerned parents “all day, every day,” she told HuffPost Canada.

But she wants to reassure them that the risk of their kids contracting coronavirus is “extremely low.”

“It’s not a real risk at the moment in Canada,” she said.

Canadian kids are much more likely to contract the flu than coronavirus.
Canadian kids are much more likely to contract the flu than coronavirus.

Only two cases of coronavirus has been confirmed by Canada’s national lab in Winnipeg: a Toronto man in his 50s who had recently traveled to Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, and his wife. There’s one “presumed” case of coronavirus in B.C., but it hasn’t yet been confirmed by the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg. Other suspected cases are being tested elsewhere in the country.

Initial reports said the first people who contracted coronavirus had recently visited the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan, where it’s thought the virus originated. It’s believed that transmissions of coronavirus are still first and secondary; either contracted by people who visited the market or who were in contact with someone who visited the market. The market, by the way, has been closed since Jan. 1.

However, a group of Chinese researchers who looked at the first cases of the virus say in a new study published in The Lancet that there is no link between the market and the first case of the virus in China. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “a growing number of patients reportedly have not had exposure to animal markets, indicating person-to-person spread is occurring. At this time, it’s unclear how easily or sustainably this virus is spreading between people.”

But no one has gotten it third- or fourth-hand, York University global health and law professor Steven Hoffman previously told HuffPost Canada.

As of press time, there are about 4,690 cases of coronavirus worldwide. But the vast majority of those — more than 4,600 — are in mainland China.

“It’s tragic what’s happening in China,” Kulik said. But in Canada, she said, “I don’t think people need to be panicking.”

Unless you've personally travelled to Wuhan or spent a lot of time with someone who has, it's unlikely you'll contract coronavirus, experts say.
Unless you've personally travelled to Wuhan or spent a lot of time with someone who has, it's unlikely you'll contract coronavirus, experts say.

The coronavirus outbreak is different situation than the SARS outbreak of 2003, said Kulik: where SARS was concerned, one infected person quickly passed on the illness to 10 and then 100 people. The fact that the only Canadians suspected of having coronavirus are people who have recently been to Wuhan is “very reassuring” to Kulik.

Canadian kids are more likely to get the flu than coronavirus

Parents afraid of coronavirus should refocus their energy, Kulik said, to the plain old flu.

“I would love to turn the conversation towards what we can actually prevent, what truly does kill kids every year, and that’s an illness we can prevent with the flu shot,” she said.

Influenza kills an average of 3,500 Canadians every year, and young children are especially at risk. 258 kids under 16 years old were hospitalized with the flu in the three-week period between Dec. 15, 2019 and Jan. 4, 2020, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Flu shots are one of the safest and most effective ways to keep kids healthy.
Flu shots are one of the safest and most effective ways to keep kids healthy.

It’s true that we don’t know exactly what the future holds for coronavirus. But we do know definitively that right now, influenza is a much bigger risk to Canadian children, Kulik said, “in terms of contracting it, in terms of getting sick from it, and in terms of dying from it.”

Factors that might put your child at risk

If your child is exhibiting cold and flu symptoms and answers yes to the below questions, Kulik suggests going to the hospital right away for further testing.

  • Have you or your child been to Wuhan in the last month?
  • Have you or your child been in close contact with anyone who’s been to Wuhan in the last month?
  • Have you or your child been in close contact with anyone suspected of having coronavirus?

How can you protect yourself from coronavirus?

As with any other viral infection, regular and thorough hand-washing is extremely important. (Reminder: a thorough hand wash involves hot water and anti-bacterial hand soap, and lasts at least 15 seconds.)

Here are some other ways to protect yourself and your children:

  • Use anti-bacterial hand wash
  • Wash your hands every time you touch your mouth, nose, or face
  • Stay home if you’re feeling sick
  • Don’t send your kids to school or daycare if they have cold-like symptoms, or if there are other sick kids in their vicinity
  • Sneeze or cough into your elbow, not your hands
It's important to teach kids to always wash their hands properly — it's one of the biggest defences against viral illness.
It's important to teach kids to always wash their hands properly — it's one of the biggest defences against viral illness.

Before you panic, remember ...

  • Read credible news sources when it comes to coronavirus, Kulik suggests. People without medical training sharing their theories about the virus on social media often “don’t know what they’re talking about.”
  • If you’re trying to prevent the spread of the flu, you’re also preventing the spread of coronavirus.
  • The current statistics about coronavirus show that people with a weakened immune system, including older people, and people with chronic health problems, have a higher risk of severe disease that can be caused by coronavirus.
  • If you haven’t been to Wuhan, China, your risk is much lower.
  • There’s a ton of misinformation spreading about the disease, including lots of conspiracy theories and, unfortunately, lots of racism that’s totally counterproductive.
  • Getting your child a flu shot is one of the most significant ways you can ensure their good health.

Also on HuffPost: