When people read about cholera, what are their thoughts? When the plague comes up in conversation, how do they react? When you read about smallpox, how do you feel? These diseases and many more tend to elicit mild fear. This initial unease associated with these diseases is due to the destructive pandemics they caused in their respective times.
In 2003-2004, the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS) resulted in approximately 8000 cases and 800 deaths, so it’s not surprising why a recently discovered coronavirus has been the cause of much concern in the Middle East.
The Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS) has been affecting a number of people across the region, notably in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the UAE. Since July 2013, between 60 and 80 cases of the disease have been confirmed. With a fatality rate of 56 – 65 percent, the concern about MERS is warranted due to its genetic and clinical similarities to SARS. Both diseases have an incubation period of 5.2 days with a progression to pneumonia occurring shortly thereafter.
The origin of the virus is still unknown, with studies focusing on bats and camels. As genetic mutations such as influenza occur frequently in coronavirus,if an animal reservoir of MERS exists then multiple viral strains can co-exist within a single body. This increases the risk of animal to human transmission, which has occurred in influenza pandemics in the past.Human-to-human transmission is also possible in close proximity settings.
The Qatar Supreme Council of Health and the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Health are investing time and effort into educating their citizens on the MERS virus. The Supreme Council has shared advice on protecting oneself against infection, and the Ministry of Health’s website has links to World Health Organisation toolkits designed to help with communications and field operations in response to local viral outbreaks.
While the origin of the virus remains a mystery, a number of procedures, policies, surveillance programs, and studies are being implemented across the Middle East in order to combat MERS. With these efforts in place, hopefully when the virus is mentioned in the future the common response will be: “What MERS virus?”