By: Namuun Clifford
Nurse Practitioner practicing in California
19 · Feb · 2020
Photograph by: Suniko Bazargarid
The novel coronavirus outbreak has generated a sense of fear, caution, and urgency around the world. However, for highly polluted cities like Ulaanbaatar (UB), it poses an even greater threat. Not only does air pollution weaken immune systems, raising the risk of contraction and death, but its particles may be acting as carriers for viral transmission. Here is what you need to know about the relationship between air pollution and the coronavirus, and what to do to keep yourself and your family safe.
What is the novel coronavirus?
The coronavirus disease, otherwise known as COVID-19 or 2019-nCoV, is an infectious disease that causes respiratory illness. Its common symptoms include fever, cough, tiredness, and shortness of breath. In its mild form, an infection can be mistaken for the common cold, but more severe cases lead to respiratory illness and death. The main mode of transmission is from person-to-person contact: when an infected person coughs or sneezes, droplets of the virus can enter through the mouth or nose of an uninfected individual.
Why is Mongolia at increased risk?
To date, there have been a total of 219 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Mongolia. While all cases have been imported, toxic air pollution levels in UB and the quality of the current healthcare system place the country in a perilous position should an outbreak develop.
At the time of this writing, Mongolia ranks as the third most polluted country in the world. Respiratory infections such as pneumonia and influenza continue to ravage the country, exacerbated by air pollution. Pneumonia is the second leading cause of death in children under 5, and a 2018 UNICEF report showed that respiratory diseases have increased at a rate of 270% over the last 10 years. In 2019, the Ministry of Health of Mongolia reported that about 78,141 patients were hospitalized and 431 lost their lives due to pneumonia (400 deaths annually).
When people breathe in polluted air, tiny pollutant particles irritate the airways and lungs, causing swelling and excess mucus production. The inflamed and irritated airways are more prone to respiratory diseases such as influenza. Once infected with the flu virus, an immune response activates in the body leading to severe inflammation, swelling, and pain. Mucus builds up in the lungs, leading to cough and shortness of breath. The devastating combination of respiratory infection and air pollution significantly magnifies the severity of respiratory illness and increases the risk of death. The threat is greatest for children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with underlying health conditions.
How to protect yourself and others from getting sick
There are currently no specific treatments or vaccines for the novel coronavirus. The best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick is to practice general hygiene measures. Frequent hand washing is the best way to prevent the spread of infectious illnesses like COVID-19 or the flu. Hands should be washed with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, which is approximately how long it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. If soap and water are not available, you can use an alcohol-based hand-sanitizer with an alcohol level of at least 60%.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, especially with unwashed hands, as the virus may be on the surface of your hands. Avoid closed and crowded spaces, and avoid contact with others if you are experiencing any symptoms.
Cover your cough with a flexed elbow or tissue and wash your hands immediately after. Surgical face masks and cloth masks are recommended to be worn in public to prevent the spread of infection. However, it’s also important to remember that regular surgical and cloth masks do not protect against air pollution. For more information on masks, refer to our article “Advice on Masks”.
Adequate sleep, regular exercise, and healthy nutrition can all help boost your immune system, so you can effectively fight off illness. While a flu vaccine does not prevent the contraction of the coronavirus, it’s still important to receive your annual flu shot.
In order to decrease your risk of respiratory illness, it is crucial to protect yourself from air pollution if you live in UB and other polluted cities. Here are some simple, effective tips for protecting yourself and your family from the dangers of air pollution:
- Check air quality levels daily, especially before you go outdoors. Visit the Breathe Mongolia website for up-to-date information on air quality measurement levels and recommendations.
- If you must go outside when pollution levels are high, always wear a well-fitted N95 or N99 mask to protect yourself. A regular surgical mask will not provide adequate protection against the tiny pollutant particles from entering your lungs.
- Avoid exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high. Limit the amount of time your children spend playing outdoors if air quality is poor.
- Keep windows closed when pollution levels are high.
- Use an air filter indoors.
- Do not smoke indoors.
- Quit smoking. Don’t smoke around young children, pregnant women, and the elderly, as they are most susceptible to the negative effects of pollutants.
The contents of this article are here to educate the public on air pollution, health impact, and medical issues that may affect their daily lives. Nothing in this content should be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. We advise the public to always seek the guidance of a physician or other qualified healthcare providers with questions regarding personal health or medical conditions. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. For more information about COVID-19 in Mongolia, please visit our page dedicated to the pandemic.
Thank you to Khulan Gantumur, Haliun Ayush, Hayley Garment, and Enkhuun Byambadorj for their contributions to this piece.
This article was last edited on June 24th with updated COVID-19 statistics from Mongolia and guidelines from the WHO.
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