19 · Feb · 2020
by Namuun Clifford
Namuun is a Nurse Practitioner practicing in California
The novel coronavirus outbreak has generated a sense of fear, caution, and urgency around the world, including Mongolia. In highly polluted cities such as Ulaanbaatar (UB), the risk of the novel coronavirus poses an even greater threat. Here is what you need to know about air pollution and the coronavirus and how to help keep yourself and your family safe.
What is the novel coronavirus?
The COVID-19 (2019-nCoV) causes respiratory illness and symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath. An infection can be mild and mistaken for the common cold, but can also lead to severe respiratory illness and death. The virus is believed to spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and droplets enter the mouth or nose of an uninfected individual.
Why is Mongolia at increased risk?
To date, there have been no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Mongolia. However, toxic air pollution levels in UB and the quality of the current healthcare system places the country in a perilous position if an outbreak develops.
At the time of this writing, UB ranks as the second most polluted city in the world. Respiratory infections such as pneumonia and influenza continue to be a leading killer, fueled by high levels of 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 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 which leads 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 risk is highest for children, elderly, pregnant women, and those with underlying health conditions.
www.breathemongolia.org pollution map
Protect yourself and others from getting sick
There is currently no specific treatment or vaccine 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 coronavirus 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 at least 60% alcohol.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth especially with unwashed hands. The virus is spread by people in close contact so avoid visiting closed, crowded spaces. With Tsagaan Sar celebrations around the corner, it is advised to stay home and avoid visiting friends and relatives in order to prevent the risk of infection.
Cover your cough with a flexed elbow or tissue and wash your hands immediately after. Surgical face masks are recommended for individuals with a cough to prevent the spread of infection. It’s also important to remember regular surgical face masks do not protect against air pollution. For more information on masks, please read 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. Flu season can last till May, so make sure to get your annual flu vaccine.
Protect yourself and others from air pollution
In order to decrease your risk of respiratory illness, it is crucial to protect yourself from air pollution if you live in UB. 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 breathemongolia.org for up-to-date 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 child spends playing outdoors if the air quality is unhealthy.
- Keep windows closed if pollution levels are high.
- Use an air filter indoors.
- Don’t allow anyone to 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 content of this article is here to educate the public on air pollution, health impact, and medical issues that may affect their daily lives. Nothing in the content should be considered or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. We advise the public to always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any 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.
Thanks to Khulan Gantumur, Haliun Ayush, Hayley Garment, and Enkhuun Byambadorj
Translated to Mongolian by K. Gantumur
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