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Viruses and the Human Immune System

By EMN Updated: Mar 26, 2020 11:36 pm

An epidemic, where people of a large community are threatened by an infectious disease, is as bad as things can be; but an epidemic, where the disease threatens  people on a global scale, is the worst scenario imaginable. The latest strain of the Coronavirus, HCoV-19 or SARS-CoV 2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) has caused a pandemic and a complimentary rise in panic levels.

What viruses do is enter your body and start invading body cells to making copies of itself. The cell is destroyed in this process and these copies are released and they enter more cells, making more copies and attacking and destroying more cells. This goes on until the human immune system begins to fight back and destroys all the viruses or is unable to cope, leading to death. Specific viruses attack specific body cells, so a virus which causes coughs will attack only your respiratory system (your nose, throat, bronchial tubes, lungs etc.) while the rabies virus will attack only your nervous system (your nerves, spinal cord, brain etc.).

What one must understand is that medicines and vaccines do not cure infections, our immune system cures us. Specific medicines keep specific infection levels within manageable proportions until our immune system starts fighting back and specific vaccines train the immune system to fight against specific viruses.

The Human Immune System is part army, part memory bank. Viruses have specific molecules called antigens, these antigens help our bodies in recognising that the virus is an alien invader. Viruses in the blood stream are swallowed and destroyed by white blood cells (WBCs), it is when viruses enters body cells, to make copies of itself, that the WBCs become ineffective. But the antigens trigger the immune system to start producing antibodies and Killer T-Cells. The antibodies lock on to the virus, rendering it powerless to invade other cells, so that WBCs can mop them up, while the killer T-cells destroy the viruses.

Our immune systems keep a memory of every virus that has ever infected us. The moment they identify a known virus, through its antigen, it starts producing antibodies and killer cells. What a vaccine does is introduce dead or weakened dangerous viruses so that our immune system may learn to produce suitable antibodies. It is when new viruses invade our bodies that the immune system takes time to identify the intruder and manufacture a suitable response.

The danger that a virus presents depends on various factors, some of which are: how it is transmitted, its longevity outside a host, its incubation/gestation period (how long it takes before one gets sick), its target or which part of the body it attacks, which sections of the population are vulnerable to it and its mortality/kill rate (how many people infected die of the infection).

Keeping the above factors in mind, let us examine the Coronavirus, HCoV-19/SARS-CoV 2.

(i) Transmission:- The Coronavirus can be transmitted through air, but keeping a distance of around 1.5 metres (approximately 5 feet) from an infected person, prevents transmission of the virus.

The virus can be transmitted through contact with an infected person or surface, but only if you touch your mouth, nose or, possibly, eyes with the point of contact (e.g. your hands).

Viruses are just a string of molecules covered by a layer of fat, washing your hands vigorously with soap, while building up a lather (foam), for up to 20 seconds, in warm water, dissolves the layer of fat that protects the virus, and causes it to break down into harmless components.

(ii) Longevity:- The Coronavirus can be active outside a host for 3 to 72 hours, depending on the surface it rests on. But you have to touch the contaminated surface and then touch your mouth, nose and eyes to get infected. So, even if you believe that you’ve touched an infected person or material, avoiding touching mouth, nose and eyes and a thorough hand wash removes the danger of infection.

(iii) Incubation/Gestation:- The virus takes between 1 to 14 days from when you were infected to when you start getting sick. So if you or anyone who has been exposed to the virus does not get sick by the end of the 14th. day, you’re safe.

(iv) Target:- The virus targets your respiratory system, mainly your lungs. This causes shortness of breath, which means that your body is not receiving sufficient oxygen. Lack of oxygen can cause your internal organs to fail, resulting in death.

(v) Vulnerability:- Although the virus can infect anyone, only elderly people and people with pre-existing medical conditions, like diabetes, heart problems etc. are in grave danger.

(vi) Mortality/Kill Rate:- Compared to some strains of the Ebola and Marburg Viruses (upto 90 and 80 % mortality respectively), the Coronavirus is much less dangerous. Out of 100 people infected, only 20 need hospitalisation. Of the 20 hospitalised, about 3 to 5 die, and these deaths have only occurred among the elderly and those suffering from pre-existing medical conditions.

    From the above points, we can see that it is not the Coronavirus, but our total unpreparedness for it, that is the cause of all the fear and panic. Respirators are needed to keep patients alive until the immune system finds a suitable response, health care professionals need protective gear to stay safe. When patients are hospitalised in the hundreds and thousands, and with even the best and largest hospitals having only a limited amount of respirators and protective gear; the health care systems of the affected countries are overwhelmed . Every loss of human life is a tragedy, but in terms of the actual danger to mankind, Malaria and HIV still lead.

The lockdown by our State Government and subsequent lockdown of India by the Central Government are good steps. The isolation created by the lockdown will help identify individuals and pockets of infection so that corrective measures can be taken. But the Government of Nagaland, at least, must make immediate provisions for the poor and daily wage workers. A system of providing them with provisions during the period of the lockdown must be implemented immediately.

In ending, I would like to inform the police and colony/village volunteers enforcing the lockdown that you have no authority to beat anyone violating the lockdown. The lockdown is based on the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, violation of which attracts penalty under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, which prescribes a fine ranging from Rs. 200 to Rs. 1000 and imprisonment from 1 to 6 months, penalties which can only be imposed by a magistrate. Arrest them or caution them, beating them opens you to charges of assault.

Kahuto Chishi Sumi
Akukau, Hevishe Village, Khaghaboto Range, Dimapur

By EMN Updated: Mar 26, 2020 11:36:09 pm