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Latinx individuals more vulnerable to COVID-19 — study

30/07/2020

We recently wrote about how being overweight or obese increases COVID-19 risks. Now, a new study has revealed how Latinx individuals are significantly more likely to test positive for SARS-CoV-2 —, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — than any other ethnic or racial group. The researchers who conducted the study believe crowded living conditions, plus an economic necessity to continue working outdoors throughout the pandemic have contributed to the higher infection rates among Latinx communities. Furthermore, the researchers say that members of these communities are disproportionately less likely to have health insurance than their peers from other ethnic and racial groups. This reality, the researchers say, has contributed to the disparities we see today. For the study, the researchers analyzed over 35,000 COVID-19 test results from hospitals and outpatient clinics in the Baltimore-Washington area. They found that 16.3% of the tests were positive. Of those positive results, Latinx individuals accounted for 42.6% of the total, followed by black people (17.6%), “others” (17.2%), and white people (8.8%). Another uncovered discrepancy was that Latinx patients who tested positive and were subsequently hospitalized were significantly less likely to have been previously diagnosed with a health condition, something, the researchers suggest, could be due to them having poorer access to healthcare. The research, which is published in JAMA, involved a collaboration between the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the university’s Center for Data Science in Emergency Medicine.

Coronavrius: Oxford vaccine appears safe, triggers immune response

21/07/2020

A coronavirus vaccine developed by the Universality of Oxford and AstraZeneca appears safe and triggers an immune response that should protect people against infection. According to a trial of the vaccine involving 1,077 participants, the findings of which are published in The Lancet, the vaccine led to individuals making antibodies and T-cells that fight SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus. Within just 14 days of receiving the vaccine, participants’ T-cell levels peaked. After 28 days participants’ antibody levels peaked. Both T-cells and antibodies are crucial in the body’s immune defence of viruses, which is why any effective vaccine needs to induce both in the people who receive it. But while the findings are immensely promising, more research is needed to determine exactly how safe the vaccine is, whether it can indeed provide protection against SARS-CoV-2 and how long any protection would last. Nevertheless, the UK has already ordered 100m doses of the vaccine. Prof Andrew Pollard, from the Oxford research group, told the BBC: “We're really pleased with the results published today as we're seeing both neutralising antibodies and T-cells. “They're extremely promising and we believe the type of response that may be associated with protection. “But the key question everyone wants to know is does the vaccine work, does it offer protection... and we're in a waiting game.” The next step is for more than 10,000 people to take part in the next stage of the trial to further determine how safe the vaccine is. [Related reading: World leaders pledge billions to help develop coronavirus vaccine]

COVID-19 immunity could be lost in months, UK study suggests

14/07/2020

People who have recovered from COVID-19 and gained immunity to the disease could lose it again within months, a new study from the UK suggests. According to the research by a team from King’s College London, the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) could reinfect people year after year, much like common colds. Having studied the immune responses of more than 90 patients and healthcare workers at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS foundation trust, the researchers found that COVID-19 antibody levels peaked about three weeks after the onset of symptoms.  [Related reading: Coronavirus: Immunity levels likely to be higher than antibody tests suggest] Blood tests revealed that while 60% of COVID-19 patients displayed a “potent” antibody response at the height of their battle with the disease, this figure fell to just 17% three months later. In some cases, antibody levels became undetectable. The findings of the study have implications when it comes to developing a COVID-19 vaccine, as well as achieving greater herd immunity. The bottom line is that if antibody levels drop over time and people are able to be reinfected seasonally, a vaccine would not actually provide any long-term benefits. Speaking about the findings of the study, Dr Katie Doores, lead author from King’s College London, said: “People are producing a reasonable antibody response to the virus, but it’s waning over a short period of time and depending on how high your peak is, that determines how long the antibodies are staying around.”

Face masks extremely unlikely to cause CO2 poisoning

25/06/2020

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has previously recommended people wear cloth face coverings in public settings to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2. However, some people have been concerned about whether face coverings, such as masks, cause carbon dioxide (CO2) poisoning. Experts have now come out saying that’s impossible. Speaking about the use of cloth face masks, Prof Keith Neal, an infectious disease expert, said wearing one will not cause hypercapnia (too much carbon dioxide in the blood). Echoing these comments, Darrell Spurlock Jr., PhD, RN, the director of the Leadership Center for Nursing Education Research at Widener University, said: “Rebreathing tiny amounts of CO2 from wearing either properly fitted N95 respirators or more loosely fitted cloth or surgical masks is of no concern for the vast, vast majority of people.” Carbon dioxide molecules are tiny and do not get trapped by the breathable material used to make cloth ace masks. When you breathe out, the carbon dioxide goes through and round the mask. Surgeons and other medical professionals regularly wear much more heavy duty face coverings all day without coming to harm. Face masks can play a potentially important role in reducing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 because they can help limit it being transmitted by an infected individual. This is particularly true for people who are asymptomatic and do not actually know they have the virus. The only stipulation when it comes to the wearing of cloth face masks is that people with existing lung conditions should consult their physician before doing so. This is because masks do affect normal air entry and could make breathing difficult for people with severe lung diseases. [Related reading: COVID-19: Could a second wave already be here?]

What does it mean for a vaccine if the new coronavirus mutates?

16/06/2020

As the number of SARS-CoV-2 infections around the world passes eight million, hopes still remain on a vaccine being developed. But what does it mean for a potential vaccine if the new coronavirus mutates? Well, the bottom line is that all viruses mutate, it is part of their life cycle, so there’s a very good chance that SARS-CoV-2 will too. The good news though is that mutations can actually lead to weaker viruses, although the reality is that there’s usually no noticeable difference in the disease’s transmission and fatality rates. This seems to be the case with SARS-CoV-2. Mutations that are currently spreading around places like New York do not seem to be any more infectious or fatal than the original strain that came out of Wuhan, China, in late December. According to the Scripps Research Institute in Florida, any SARS-CoV-2 vaccine that is developed will also likely be effective against mutated forms of the virus. It’s the reason why our very effective vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (which are RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2) still protects us, despite these viruses mutating over the years. So even if SARS-CoV-2 mutates further down the road, while we might see some breakthrough infections, it wouldn’t necessarily lead to a new pandemic. [Related reading: How long before there’s a coronavirus vaccine?]

WHO clarifies comments on asymptomatic coronavirus spread

11/06/2020

The World Health Organization’s Maria Van Kerkhove, MD and technical lead for the WHO’s pandemic response, caused a stir recently when she implied that transmission of the coronavirus from asymptomatic individuals appears to be “very rare.” Now, the WHO has sought to clarify her comments, saying they were based on a relatively small set of studies. Kerkhove’s comments caused confusion because they appeared to directly contradict advice from several public health organizations. While evidence suggests that individuals with symptoms are most infectious, others do not develop any symptoms at all, despite testing positive for SARS-CoV-2. What remains unknown is how many other people these asymptomatic individuals go on to infect. It’s one of the reasons why Europe-wide lockdowns have been so effective in halting the spread of the virus, saving millions of lives. Then there are people who infect others while they are pre-symptomatic, meaning before they have actually developed any symptoms but later do. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pre-symptomatic individuals account for around 40% of coronavirus transmission. Director of the WHO's health emergencies programme, Dr Michael Ryan, said he was "absolutely convinced" that asymptomatic transmission was occurring; "the question is how much". So the bottom line seems to be that we simply don’t know how big a role asymptomatic individuals play in the spread of the virus. More research is needed.

European coronavirus lockdowns saved millions of lives

09/06/2020

While the COVID-19 lockdowns across Europe have not been easy for most people, new research shows that they have been effective in saving countless lives. According to the study by a team at Imperial College, London, Europe-wide lockdowns to reduce the impact of SARS-CoV-2 have saved more than three million lives. The team said that if lockdown had not been implemented across the continent, the “death toll would have been huge”. However, the team also warned that Europe is still only at the beginning of the pandemic and that scores more people could be infected. Assessing the impact of lockdowns up to the beginning of May in 11 European countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. By that time, approximately 130,000 people had died from COVID-19 in those countries. Using disease modelling, the researchers predicted how many deaths there would have been if no lockdowns and restrictions had been enforced. They estimated 3.2 million people would have died by 4 May, the report in the journal Nature shows. In other words, lockdown measures prevented around 3.1 million lives, including 470,000 in the UK, 630,000 in Italy and 690,000 in France. "Lockdown averted millions of deaths, those deaths would have been a tragedy," said Dr. Seth Flaxman, from Imperial College. [Related reading: Which demographic worries least about COVID-19?]

Which demographic worries least about COVID-19?

04/06/2020

With all the media attention it’s received, and the very real threat it poses to our health, many people are, quite rightly, worried about COVID-19. Interestingly, though, some demographics are a lot less worried about COVID-19 than others, new research has found. According to the study by a small team from Georgia State University — the findings of which are published in The Journals of Gerontology — older men are less likely to worry and make fewer behavioral changes in response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The research concludes that these older men — typically aged between 65 and 81 — need more education and intervention to ensure they perceive the risks of COVID-19 accurately. This is especially important when you consider that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) figures show that 8 out of 10 COVID deaths in the United States have been people aged 65 and over. Furthermore, men are at greater risk of requiring intensive care interventions and have a higher likelihood of worse outcomes, including death. Speaking about the findings of the study, author Dr. Sarah Barber, a gerontology and psychology researcher at Georgia State University, said not worrying too much is actually a good thing under normal circumstances. But right now, things are anything but normal, and worrying less could ultimately lead to fewer protective COVID-19 behavior changes — a reality that could have a knock-on effect on others. [Related reading: Research shows warmer temperatures do slow COVID-19 transmission (but not by much)]

Research shows warmer temperatures do slow COVID-19 transmission (but not by much)

02/06/2020

Research shows warmer temperatures do slow COVID-19 transmission (but not by much) Warmer temperatures have long been associated with reduced transmission rates of some respiratory viruses. It’s one of the reasons why flu tends to have a much larger impact during winter months. Therefore, it stands to reason that the spread of SARS-CoV-2 could also be slowed or even halted as countries start to experience warmer temperatures. Now, research seems to have confirmed what many people have thought. For the study, researchers from the Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts looked at the effect of temperature, precipitation, and UV index on COVID-19 case rates in the United States from January 22, 2020 through April 3, 2020. They found the rate of COVID-19 incidence does decrease as temperatures get warmer, up until 52 degrees F. After that, virus transmission does not decrease significantly. Furthermore, while the overall impact remains modest, a higher UV index also assists in slowing the growth rate of new cases. Precipitation was not found to have any impact on the spread of the virus. The findings will comes as welcome news as many states in America see warmer weather easing in. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could worsen again in the fall and winter as temperatures drop. [Related reading: What is COVID-19 antibody testing (and why is it useful?)]

What is COVID-19 antibody testing (and why is it useful?)

28/05/2020

There have been numerous reports recently about how both the European Union and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have now approved certain COVID-19 antibody tests. But what are these tests for and are they useful in the overall fight against the pandemic? An antibody test basically checks your blood for antibodies. These are made when your body fights an infection, like if you had COVID-19. The test isn’t actually looking for the infection itself, rather signs that your body has built a defense against it i.e. you had the infection and your body responded accordingly. One of the valuable outcomes of antibody tests is that they help us ascertain just how many people have potentially had the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). This helps build a fuller picture of the virus’ spread, as well as calculate how many people there are out there who could still potentially get it. Such information could help in the development of strategies to safeguard communities and possibly allow for more freedom of movement. Antibody tests could also help identify individuals who have had COVID-19 and whose blood could be used to help those fighting the disease. [Related reading: Losing sleep over the COVID-19 outbreak? These 5 tips will help]

Did you know there are 7 known coronaviruses that can infect humans?

14/05/2020

You can’t switch on the news right now without hearing the word ‘coronavirus’. But coronaviruses are actually nothing new and most people will be infected with one at some point in their life. But don’t worry, most coronaviruses cause only moderate symptoms. In fact, of the seven known coronaviruses that affect humans, four are endemic (found regularly) and rarely cause severe disease on their own. These four are called 229E, OC43, NL63, and HKU1. Coronaviruses 229E and OC43 usually result in the common cold most of us experience from time to time, particularly during the winter. However, there are also three known coronaviruses that cause more severe symptoms: SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and the one we are dealing with now, SARS-CoV-2. What SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus have in common is that they are more dangerous for people with underlying medical conditions. And while SARS and MERS have significantly higher case fatality rates than COVID-19, the latter is more infectious. Finally, it is worth noting that there have been no new SARS cases for over a decade. However, MERS remains a public health concern, with a handful of cases cropping up every year. Two of the biggest challenges with the current SARS-CoV-2 outbreak are that many people are asymptomatic and our lust for international travel and the ease with which we can do it have allowed the virus to spread rapidly around the globe. [Related reading: Why COVID-19 hits some people harder than others]

World leaders pledge billions to help develop coronavirus vaccine

05/05/2020

As the number of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) cases globally passes 3.5 million, world leaders have pledged more than $8bn (€7.3bn) to help with the development of a coronavirus vaccine and fund research into diagnosing and treating the disease. The donations came from more than 30 countries, as well as numerous UN and philanthropic bodies and research institutes. Pop singer Madonna was one of the donors, pledging $1.1m (€1m), while Norway matched the European Commission’s contribution of $1bn (€920m) and France, Saudi Arabia and Germany all pledged $500m (€458m). Japan promised to give more than $800m (€733). Russia and the United States, which has suspended funding to the World Health Organization, were notably absent from the online summit hosted by the European Union (EU). Meanwhile, China, where SARS-CoV-2 originated in December, was represented by its ambassador to the EU. The EU said that $4.4bn of the money raised will go towards developing a vaccine, $2bn on the search for a treatment and $1.6bn for producing tests. In an open letter published in newspapers over the weekend, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the pledged funds would “kickstart an unprecedented global co-operation between scientists and regulators, industry and governments, international organizations, foundations and healthcare professionals”. “If we can develop a vaccine that is produced by the world, for the whole world, this will be a unique global public good of the 21st Century,” they added. [Related reading: How long before there’s a coronavirus vaccine?]

Can you catch the new coronavirus twice?

14/04/2020

When you are infected with a virus, your immune system produces very specific antibodies to try and fight it off. It’s these antibodies that then provide us with immunity from future outbreaks of the same virus. If the virus comes back, the necessary antibodies are swiftly called to action and defeat it before it can make you feel unwell. However, reports emerged in February of a lady in Japan who was apparently given the all-clear having developed COVID-19, but who then tested positive for the virus a second time. But the biggest question this scenario raises is in regards to the reliability of the tests. The bottom line is we simply don’t yet know whether people can become infected with the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, a second time. Small animal experiments suggest reinfection is unlikely, but right now, we don’t have a definitive answer. Perhaps the most obvious place to focus is on related viruses, such as SARS. A 2017 study of SARS patients found that 89% of people who recovered had detectable antibodies two years after the infection had cleared. However, at the six-year mark, this went down to just two out of 23 patients, suggesting people have immunity, but perhaps not indefinitely. Our best hope will be if a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine can be developed which will provide rapid immunity. [Related reading: How long before there’s a coronavirus vaccine?]

How long before there’s a coronavirus vaccine?

09/04/2020

With the COVID-19 pandemic still causing chaos in many countries around the world, much focus has turned to developing a vaccine to prevent the horrible respiratory disease. But how far off is a coronavirus vaccine and what’s taking so long? At present, estimates on how long it will take to develop a safe, effective coronavirus vaccine range from one year to 18 months, with some experts warning it would take even longer. The reality is that in vaccine years that is extremely fast and the likelihood is that a coronavirus vaccine will take longer. Right now, no less than 35 companies and academic institutions are racing to develop a vaccine for the new coronavirus. At least four have candidates that they are currently testing in animals. One, produced by Boston-based biotech firm Moderna, will begin human trials very soon. One of the reasons why some companies had a head start creating a vaccine is because coronaviruses have caused two other recent epidemics: the 2002-2004 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in China and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak, which was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. In both cases, work began on vaccines, but these were later shelved when the outbreaks were contained. Some of those vaccines are now being repurposed to help in the fight against Sars-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). Once a COVID-19 vaccine that is safe and effective in humans has been approved, another challenge will be producing it in the vast quantities needed. In the meantime, thoroughly wash your hands regularly and follow COVID-19 advice.

5 Coronavirus myths debunked

07/04/2020

It’s impossible to turn on the news at the moment and not be greeted with updates about the coronavirus disease, COVID-19. The problem, however, with so much news coverage is that it can be difficult to discern which pieces of information are true and which are simply myths. To help provide some clarity, we have compiled this list of coronavirus myths: Myth 1. Children cannot catch the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) While the majority of coronavirus cases have been in adults, people of any age can become infected with SARS-CoV-2. What is true is that adults with several pre-existing health conditions are more likely to become severely ill. Myth 2. COVID-19 is just like the flu While COVID-19 causes many symptoms that could be described as ‘flu-like’ and both illnesses can lead to pneumonia, the overall profile of COVID-19 is more serious than ordinary flu. While the actual mortality rate of COVID-19 remains unclear, it is expected to be many times higher than that of seasonal flu. Myth 3. Antibiotics kill coronavirus COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2, a virus. Antibiotics only kill bacteria, so they are all but useless against the new coronavirus. Myth 4. Thermal scanners can diagnose coronavirus The only thing that thermal scanners can detect is an elevated body temperature  (a fever). While this is one of the symptoms of COVID-19, it cannot be used to diagnose the disease alone. Myth 5. Face masks protect against coronavirus Wearing a face mask is not guaranteed to protect you from SARS-CoV-2 – especially if the face mask is ill-fitting. Where face masks can make a real difference is when they are worn by people with the virus, as they can help prevent others from becoming infected. [Related reading: A lesser known COVID-19 symptom to look out for]

A lesser known COVID-19 symptom to look out for

02/04/2020

While fever, tiredness and a dry cough are the most common symptoms associated with COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, evidence is beginning to show that a sudden loss of smell or taste could also be a sign. The latest researchers to report that a loss of smell and taste could be associated with COVID-19 are a team from King’s College London. They looked at responses from more than 400,000 people with suspected COVID-19 symptoms who entered how they were feeling into an app. Of the people who had tested positive for COVID-19 (579 individuals), three-fifths (59%) reported a loss of smell or taste. While a loss of smell or taste have not yet been added to the official list of COVID-19 symptoms published by the NHS or Public Health England, it is important to note that the current situation is rapidly evolving and this could change at any time. The King’s College researchers say that a loss of smell or taste should not be used on their own, but could be useful when considered alongside other important symptoms such as a dry cough and fever. Speaking about their findings, lead researcher Professor Tim Spector said: “When combined with other symptoms, people with loss of smell and taste appear to be three times more likely to have contracted Covid-19 according to our data, and should therefore self-isolate for seven days to reduce the spread of the disease.” [Related reading: Why social distancing is crucial for reducing the spread of COVID-19]

How to Clean Your Groceries During the Current COVID-19 Outbreak

31/03/2020

The new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that causes COVID-19 has meant that many people are staying at home as much as possible, only venturing out to exercise, seek medical assistance and buy essential grocery items. But while you can reduce your risk of infection while you are out of your house by regularly washing your hands, observing social distancing and remembering to clean your cellphone, something many people forget to clean is the groceries they return home with. Now there’s a good chance that the products you have bought have been handled by other people before you put them in your basket or trolley. They may have even been sneezed or coughed on. And when you consider that the new coronavirus is stable for anything from several hours to a few days in aerosols and on certain surfaces, there is a risk every time you bring groceries home. So what can you do to minimize the risk that your groceries pose? Here are a few pointers: Touch only the items you intend to buy Wipe down the basket or trolley you’re going to use with disinfectant wipes Wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when you’re done shopping Wipe cans and food boxes before storing them Throw away any disposable packaging Thoroughly wash any tables or countertops that came into contact with your groceries Wash your hands again [Related reading: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public]

Why social distancing is crucial for reducing the spread of COVID-19

26/03/2020

With SARS-CoV-2 spreading rapidly across the globe and causing more and more cases of COVID-19, governments everywhere are urging their citizens to observe social distancing. But why is this simple measure so effective in halting the spread of the virus? One of the biggest problems with the new coronavirus is that some people are completely asymptomatic i.e. they exhibit no obvious symptoms, or have very mild symptoms only. However, these individuals can still pass the virus on to other people, further fuelling its spread. That’s why social distancing – even for people who aren’t exhibiting symptoms – is so important. Just look at the image that accompanies this post (Credit: Dr Robin Thompson/ University of Oxford). By staying at least 2 metres away from other people, a carrier of the virus can reduce the number of people affected in total by 33%. So instead of over 1,000 new cases after six weeks, the number is just 127. With social distancing, the transmission of the virus is significantly reduced, which in turn reduces the burden on already overstretched healthcare services. The bottom line is that by keeping our distance from each other, we can break the chain of the virus. In simple terms, avoid any mass gatherings, such as weddings, concerts or even a busy train/bus. You should also try and maintain at least 2 metres distance from the people around you when out in public. Finally, reduce your social activities as much as possible. It’s not going to be forever, but your cooperation now could make a monumental difference in the long run.

How and how often should you be cleaning your cellphone during the current COVID-19 outbreak?

19/03/2020

The current COVID-19 pandemic has triggered many people to start doing something they should have already been doing on a regular basis: washing their hands. But while keeping your hands clean and observing social distancing rules are two of the best ways to protect yourself from this horrible virus, there is another fundamental part of your daily life that could be leaving you vulnerable and that’s your cellphone. Cellphones – particularly their touchscreens – can be a haven for bacteria, viruses and fungi. Most worrying of all, though, is the fact that SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – is detectable for up to three days on plastic and stainless steel. Now, obviously you can’t wash your cellphone under the tap with soap, so what’s the answer? First and foremost, before you attempt to clean your cellphone, consult the manufacturer’s website. It should contain directions on how to safely clean your phone.  Apple, for example, has cleaning recommendations and guidelines on its website [here]. How often should you clean your phone? If you’re diligent about washing your hands regularly, you can probably get away with cleaning your cellphone once or twice a day. But if it’s frequently placed down on potentially dirty surfaces, you should probably be doing so more often. However, according to Dr. David Westenberg, associate professor of biological sciences at Missouri University of Science and Technology, you should clean your cellphone immediately if you have been near someone who was coughing and sneezing.

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