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Battling the super virus

Sunday, 7 October 2007 - 3:50am IST

The common cold virus has morphed into something more dangerous and is spreading across the city. Fighting it has become twice as hard.

It’s going to take a while for your immune system to get used to the new version of the superbug. And the only way you can protect yourself from the more virulent virus, is by staying away from it

The common cold virus has morphed into something more dangerous and is spreading across the city. Fighting it has become twice as hard.

A stronger virus
The strains of the virus are becoming more virulent because of the rapid transition from one host to another. The benign and weaker viruses tend to die with each move, but the more aggressive ones, which can adapt to a variety of hosts, survive. The transition is easy in overpopulated cities like Mumbai.

Now the virus is acquiring new capabilities like damaging tissues, which were once out of its deadly reach. And as the virus gets stronger, we get weaker.  It takes more time for us to build our immunity against these viruses.

Patients who complain of fever are diagnosed with the ubiquitous ‘viral infection’. What the doctor really means is that you have a common cold or the flu, caused by rhinoviruses and the influenza virus. The illness is mild and self-limiting. So, most often, there is no thorough check-up and the symptoms are treated till the patient recovers in four to five days.

Bacteria assist viruses
A viral infection is often accompanied by a bacterial infection. The mucosal lining of the tissue in the nose and respiratory tract becomes more foggy and is a good growth medium for bacteria.

Like their infectious counterparts, bacteria are also becoming stronger, but for different reasons. With more expensive and stronger antibiotics being prescribed even when they are not required, bacteria are becoming more resistant to medicines.

If the fever and symptoms are prolonged and become more severe, it’s because of the secondary bacterial infections that cause complications such as sinusitis and pneumonia. They may even cause more serious illnesses, such as dengue fever.

These diseases may not be because of a virus, and in such instances, the doctor treating the patient needs to confirm the exact nature of the infecting agent, so that the appropriate treatment can be administered.

Medicines have no effect
Most of the drugs dispensed for viral infections — common antibiotics — have no effect on viruses and work only to clear secondary bacterial infections. A number of patients recover from viral infections because of their inbuilt immune systems. This often results in life-long immunity against further infections by similar viruses, as is seen in cases of viral jaundice and chicken pox.

However, the immune system is no match for a strain that is completely different. And because the virus keeps changing, the body finds it difficult to fight it.

A particularly virulent strain of the common influenza virus caused a worldwide pandemic of pneumonia that killed more humans than those killed in World War I in 1918. Clearly, it’s time viruses were taken seriously.

Prevention, the best cure
Viruses are transmitted by various means. While most spread by droplet infections — sneezing or coughing — some are transmitted by contact, as in the case of the virus that causes conjunctivitis.

Some like the hepatitis viruses are ingested, while others — chikungunya and the Japanese encephalitis, to name a few — are contracted through mosquito bites. The danger of viruses jumping species into humans is omnipresent, as seen with the worldwide spread of HIV.

We need to be vigilant and it’s essential to have a good surveillance system, so that outbreaks can be quickly identified and dealt with.

You can avoid contracting a viral infection by practising these simple precautions — good environmental hygiene to prevent possible mosquito breeding, drinking clean water, universal childhood immunisation to prevent the scourge of polio, etc and selective immunisation of adults against hepatitis B, influenza and Japanese encephalitis.

Dr Sorabjee is a consultant physician at Bombay Hospital. He spoke to Geetanjali Jhala

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