MERS- a new disease from the old world

After the 2003 SARS epidemic claimed almost a thousand lives worldwide, another coronavirus is now rearing its ugly head from the Arabian Peninsula. The etiological agent of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), MERS-CoV is thought to arise from an animal source, possibly camels (or bats). How exactly the virus has managed to jump from animal species to humans to be transmitted from person-person is still a mystery, but possible routes include intake of unpasteurized, contaminated camel milk or meat.


MERS is characterized by non-specific symptoms such as fever, shortness of breath, and cough, and is associated with an alarming mortality rate of 30%. Treatment includes alleviating symptoms and isolating the patient to prevent transmission. Other aspects of the infection that are of concern include the lack of a vaccine or specific treatment for the disease; an alarming spike in the number of cases since the diagnosis of the first human case in 2012; and the possibility of rapid global spread from international travel.


Recently, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a statement regarding MERS after a traveler contracted the disease in Saudi Arabia. In the statement, CDC has advised Americans to protect themselves by frequently washing hands, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoid touching their eyes, nose, and/or their mouths, and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces. Although the CDC does not recommend anyone to change their travel plans to the Middle East, it does stress seeking immediate medical attention when experiencing symptoms such as shortness of breath, fever, and cough within 14 days of travel to the Middle East.


The good news is that several lessons derived from dealing with the SARS pandemic in 2003 may help nip this nascent uprising in the bud. These include checking travelers for indicators of fever, quarantine of patients, as well as increasing awareness on behaviors to prevent contracting the virus. Moreover, the CDC is working closely with the World Health Organization to understand the virus, trace its source, as well as quickly develop an appropriate drug or vaccine against it.