You’re on the 61 bus and you sneeze into your hand because you don’t have a tissue. It’s no big deal. If you have coronavirus and pass it onto the woman sitting next to you, she’s in her 20s and looks healthy enough. She can’t be one of the “vulnerable” people the government keeps mentioning, right?
Wrong. It is quite possible the woman sitting next to you is one of thousands of people in the UK with an invisible disability that makes her far more at risk from Covid-19.
As the infection figures rise, this community, along with the elderly and visibly disabled, is the reason all of us have a public responsibility to follow government advice about hand washing and social distancing, to save lives.
I have multiple sclerosis: my immune system is mistakenly attacking my body. I don’t use a wheelchair or a cane. On good days my symptoms don’t show. If you passed me on the street, you wouldn’t know my ability to fight infection has been compromised. There are 130,000 people with MS in the UK. Most are diagnosed in their 20s and 30s when they appear fit and can be active. I know people with the condition who play physically challenging sports like rugby or run marathons.
Over time, symptoms such as spasms, fatigue or vision issues progress. It is a horrible reality of MS that you can feel fine one day, then experience such painful muscle spasms the next you can’t dress yourself.
There is no cure, so the best way to tackle the condition is to slow down or halt the progressive onset of symptoms.
Some of the most effective drugs available to stem the progression of the disease work by suppressing the immune system. But slowing down symptoms reduces the body’s ability to fight infections from outside - infections like flu, pneumonia and now Covid-19.
When I had immuno-suppressant treatment four years ago I was at greater risk of infection.
To our community, and I include here some 80 autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s, lupus and Type 1 Diabetes, worries about developing pneumonia or any other respiratory condition have stepped up a few gears with the arrival of coronavirus to our shores.
A common symptom of MS is anxiety. Given the population at large is worried about coronavirus to varying degrees, you can imagine anxiety is heightened in the MS community with every new figure that is released. We are seeing it constantly now on our social network and our social media channels. Members are discussing whether to avoid going out but also whether to start new courses of medication at all.
We want to reassure members there is no need to panic and that if they keep up-to-date with government information, speak to their health care professionals and follow medical blogs like Barts MS Blog, they can protect themselves. But we need your help. Follow the guidelines. Do all you can to delay the spread of this pernicious virus. Don’t stockpile. Chances are we will need those hand sanitisers before you get the third bottle out of your cupboard.
We are not a nanny state, but in this case we need to follow the guidance. In China where people are sticking to the rules, they are now seeing the number of new cases go down.
The Connect Immune Research umbrella group estimates four million people in the UK are living with an autoimmune condition – more than 6% of the population.
Protect your family and loved ones – but also think about the wider implications for the people around you, and certainly that woman on the 61 bus.
George Pepper is chief executive of shift.ms, a social media network for people living with multiple sclerosis