Is MERS the next big global health threat?

by Lynde Langdon
Posted 5/23/14, 12:22 pm

A Illinois businessman walked away from a 40-minute meeting at the beginning of May with something unexpected: a case of a novel Middle Eastern virus. The man’s business associate lived in Saudi Arabia and had contracted MERS, or Middle Eastern Respiratory virus, before traveling to the United States. Both men fully recovered, but many in Saudi Arabia and surrounding countries have not been so fortunate. MERS has killed at least 200 people around the world and infected hundreds more, according to Arab News. The virus made its first incursion to the United States this month, which begs the question: Could MERS be the next global pandemic? Here’s what you need to know:

MERS is slow to spread. It’s a coronavirus, from the same viral family as the common cold. It spreads through sneezes, spittle, and other droplets. MERS lives deep in the respiratory tract, so it is not as prevalent in secretions as the cold virus would be. Most of the people who have caught MERS were in the same family or providing healthcare to someone with the disease, meaning they had prolonged contact with the sick person.

But it’s quick to kill. About 30 percent of reported cases have ended in death so far. That’s a much higher death rate than influenza, which typically kills less than 0.1 percent of victims, or even SARS, the coronavirus that ravaged China in 2003 with a death rate of about 11 percent. There are some caveats to those numbers, though: The mortality rate for MERS is probably exaggerated because many people with mild cases get better on their own and do not report their illness to doctors. Also, one study of MERS showed that most people who died from it also suffered from chronic illness such as diabetes or heart disease. MERS could be much deadlier for the sick and elderly than for the average population.

It feels like a cold, but worse. Fever, chills, and shortness of breath are the most common MERS symptoms. Doctors say the extreme shortness of breath distinguishes MERS from the average cold. Like a cold, there is no cure for MERS. Doctors can only treat the symptoms. The U.S. biotechnology firm Novavax has already developed a trial MERS vaccine. But the MIT Technology Review reported the company has run into scientific roadblocks in testing it. Because MERS is not as widespread as the flu or SARS, there might not be enough demand to justify mass-marketing a vaccine.

There’s politics, too. International health experts are complaining Saudi Arabia has been unwilling to accept their help in responding to the outbreak. A Reuters investigation revealed that 20 months into the MERS epidemic in Saudi Arabia, scientists are way behind in understanding how the virus works. For example, they know that camels carry the virus, but are uncertain how it made the jump from camels to humans. The microbiologist who found the first MERS case in Saudi Arabia posted lab results to a scientific website and was fired within a week. A deputy Saudi health minister told Reuters his government was surprised by the criticism. He blamed his government’s seemingly slow response to the disease on the normal challenges of investigating a new virus.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Lynde Langdon

Lynde is a WORLD Digital's managing editor. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, the Missouri School of Journalism, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Lynde resides with her family in Wichita, Kansas. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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