STRAIGHT TALK by Hafeez Khan

It is the time of the year when festive spirit overtakes many of us. Whether you are ushering in the New Year or celebrating Christmas. I wish a Merry Christmas to my friends and readers of Christian faith and Seasons Greetings to all.

Unfortunately the festivities will again be muted like last year. Ever since the Covid 19 pandemic entered our lives, the whole world has been turned topsy turvy. In my seven decades of existence I never experienced such a prolonged disruption with no end date in sight. We are definitely in a far better position this year than the last. Same time last year scientists were still playing catch up. Prevention through isolation was the sole exit strategy. Uncertainty was devastating and it took a severe emotional and financial toll.

The advent of vaccination brought hope back into our lives. During 2021 we started to inch back towards normalcy. Social and business activity started to pick up momentum. However the Covid Pandemic is a wicked, conniving and a dangerous foe. It had its own designs. The virus started to mutate. First we were hit by the Delta variant that originated in India. It was far more vicious which took a serious loss of human life. We had barely recovered from it when a new mutated strain was let loose.

This time it is the Omicron variant. It was detected by the laboratories in Botswana and South Africa and reported to WHO on 24th November 2021. WHO is naming all the variants after Greek alphabets. Omicron is the 15th letter in this table. There is lot that is unknown about it. As a man of letters I feel duty bound to share my research based knowledge of this new ninja assailant. My hope is to help folks understand this phenomenon and find ways to cope with it.

The ease and joy of travelling in the modern world is also causing the spread of this virus. It is no longer possible to isolate or localize a breakout. Travelers transport it to faraway lands. In less than a month of its onset, it has spread to all the continents in over 80 countries. Being highly transmissible it will soon spread to all the countries.

What do we know about this variant so far?

SYMPTOMS: The symptoms of Omicron are different from earlier virus variants. Previously it was cough, fever and loss of sense of taste and smell. Omicron symptoms are scratchy throat, lower back pain, runny or blocked nose, headaches, muscle pain and fatigue, sneezing and night sweats.

SUPER SPREADER: Omicron is highly transmissible and infectious. The sharp spike in
cases globally clearly established that. From the data available thus far, it does not have the severity of the Delta variant. The incubation period for earlier strains like Alpha and Delta was 2 days to 2 weeks. Omicron develops in 3 to 5 days in an infected person. There is less time to isolate and prevent contagion.

SEVERITY AND PATIENT PROFILE: It is thus far spread amongst younger and healthier patients. Despite its quick spread, the hospitalizations are low. It is yet to be determined whether the Omicron is a less severe strain or it is because of the demographic profile of those infected. Younger patients generally have stronger immune systems. It impacted youth due to their greater interaction through social gatherings. That could change very quickly if the infected persons don’t avoid interacting with the elderly who are more vulnerable and those having weaker immune systems.

PREVENTION: To prevent the exponential growth of this lethal variant in this holiday season, it is vital to adhere to wearing masks. There is a need to avoid gatherings especially in indoor settings that are not well ventilated. It is paramount to exercise extreme caution. The best hope is to be fully vaccinated and receive booster shots. Data is being studied about the efficacy of vaccines against Omicron. However, indications are that it blunts the spread and definitely reduces the severity of illness.

RECOVERY: The duration of sickness from Omicron is shorter than other variants. Thus far it is known to last 5 to 7 days. Although in severe cases cough, fatigue, and shortness of breath can last up to 13 days. Furthermore the patient can infect others up to 10 days, therefore self isolation is a must with regular PCR testing. The new anti-viral drugs released by Pfizer and Merck could play a crucial role in the future.

VIRUS MUTATIONS: A clear and present danger is the mutations happening to this virus originating from countries with weak healthcare systems. Omicron started in South Africa where 20% of the population is HIV positive. Scientists believe that the virus attacks folks with weakened immune systems and incubates within the host for longer periods leading to mutations.

We need to be super diligent in Pakistan. We live in conditions that are very conducive for a super spreader like Omicron. We act loosely towards mask wearing and lack all forms of crowd control or social distancing. It is a perfect breeding ground for this ruthless variant. Thus far we have dodged the COVID bullet. Let us be vigilant and prevent this onslaught for the greater good of the masses. There is a need to act in time and educate the public to prevent the spread of this ninja assailant.

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