A photo of a blue and white covid-19 vaccine bottle mockup.
Vials of the COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: Daniel Schludi / https://unsplash.com/photos/mAGZNECMcUg Credit: Daniel Schludi / https://unsplash.com/photos/mAGZNECMcUg

First, the bad news. For the majority of viruses, there is no treatment or cure. For this reason, viruses are considered self-limiting. This means that they will dissipate and ultimately disappear on their own. It’s like the saying about the common cold, itself caused by viruses: take drugs and a cold lasts seven days. Don’t take drugs and a cold lasts a week.

Now, the good news. We are fortunate that vaccines and treatments were developed for COVID, in an unprecedented short period of time. Do you recall what life during the pandemic was like before vaccines were approved and before drugs like Paxlovid were created to fight the worst of the symptoms?

With the advent of what is the sixth booster for some people, we are accustomed to having anti-COVID shots. These may not entirely remove the risk of being affected by COVID, but they do limit the severity of the disease and the number of COVID-related deaths.

But there is some potentially bad COVID news. The discovery of EG.5, yet another variant of interest stemming from the Omicron variant, is raising concerns not only in Canada but across the globe. There seem to be two countervailing theories surrounding this new variant. The first is that it is highly infectious, which is worrisome. But the second is that immunity from vaccines and having been exposed to COVID appear to diminish the spread of this variant. Only time will tell which theory proves more important.

In addition, another new variant, BA2.86, has been reported in 11 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

What about seasonal influenza?

There are several viruses that Canadians face, generally on a seasonal basis. We are all familiar with the annual flu, or parainfluenza. This virus almost disappeared during the three years of COVID, largely thanks to mask wearing and hand washing. These simple measures, long advised by public health agencies, actually do work.

Canada generally follows Australia and New Zealand in the pattern of seasonal flu. From these two countries, we learn what we can expect in severity and the efficacy of the season’s vaccine. In their autumn flu season, Australia and New Zealand’s influenza was quite mild, despite being more prevalent than during the COVID years. Canada can likely expect the same.

Are there other viruses that are cause for concern?

Most other viruses are in two categories. There are common respiratory viruses, which Canadians have learned to take for granted. These are the enterovirus and the rhinovirus, otherwise known as the common cold.

The best protection from these remains frequent hand-washing. To avoid colds, and to protect yourself and others from germs, consider wearing a mask in crowded spaces. And always cover your cough.

More serious, but still a respiratory virus, is RSV or respiratory syncytial virus, particularly dangerous among children. Symptoms include wheezing, lethargy, and persistent cough. Outbreaks of RSV recently have made headlines across Canada, perhaps because during COVID, children did not develop the normal immunity they would otherwise have acquired by being with other children and adults.

The same is true of Hand, Foot & Mouth (HFM) disease, a particularly virulent form of enterovirus. HFM manifests itself in small spots on the hands, feet and mouth of children. Occasionally it develops on the buttocks as well. The spots are small red dots that may or may not turn into blisters.

Like other viruses, HFM is a self-limiting disease. While it is highly contagious, it does “cure” itself within a week or two. It is spread through fluids like sneezes, runny noses and productive coughs and it replicates through close contact with infected children, especially through hugs.

Adults are also susceptible to HFM, making this virus highly contagious in day care and nursery schools, where children are too young to take precautions when they cough or sneeze. Or when they spread the virus by wiping their noses and then playing with shared toys.

There is a reason why day care centres are jokingly referred to as petri dishes. Children spread viruses to each other while the viruses are incubating in them. With HFM, The red spots only appear several days later, when contagion is most rapid.

By then, many other children – and adult staff and parents – may also be infected. Ironically, at least in Ontario, HFM is not considered a reportable disease, which allows it to spread without warning parents about outbreaks. Nor is it listed as a reportable disease on the Canada-wide lists of such diseases. You are not alone if this does not make sense to you.

Any other viruses?

Norwalk virus is not a respiratory virus; rather, it is viral gastroenteritis. It is characterized by diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Because it is most common during the colder months, it is sometimes referred to as Winter Stomach Flu.

As with other viruses, it spreads most commonly in congregate settings like child care centres, schools, nursing homes, cruise ships and dormitories. Fortunately, it rarely escalates in severity and it passes within a few days. It should not be surprising that frequent hand washing is the best defense against Norwalk. Proper cooking of food can also kill the virus before it spreads.

Staying healthy

COVID-19 brought the issue of viruses to the forefront of Canadian thinking. The good news is that we are now more aware of viruses. And we are aware of public health measures to protect ourselves and others.

Some viruses come and go. Examples include SARS, M Pox (formerly known as Monkeypox) and, to a lesser extent, West Nile Virus. But all viruses provide us with immunity that helps us when other viruses attack. This is true as long as we continue to be vigilant. Hand-washing won’t eliminate viruses, but it will help us fend them off should we be exposed to them.

When COVID first came on the scene, many performers created songs and ditties about washing hands. Here is a Canadian version. It should remind us all that COVID is not the only virus.

EHL rabble headshot BW

Evelyn Lazare

Evelyn H Lazare is a healthcare planner, strategist and executive. Lazare has led nation-wide healthcare organizations in Canada and has consulted to an array of healthcare and related clients in both...