MERS continues to spread

"Virus" by renjith krishnan at
“Virus” by renjith krishnan at

The news regarding the respiratory virus MERS-COV continues to be worrying. A second case of MERS has now been reported in the United States in Orlando, Florida. This individual is a health care worker from Saudi Arabia who traveled to the U.S., as was the previous case. This fact raises serious concerns about infection control measures in Saudi Arabia’s hospitals, as I discussed in an earlier post. Fortunately, he seems to be recovering. Equally significant, two Indonesians have recently fallen ill with the disease. The first died on April 29th, and the second is seriously sick. This man had gone to Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage. Given that there is no vaccine for MERS, nor is one likely to be developed in the near future, the continued appearance of MERS amongst health care workers from Saudi Arabia, and its spread outside the Kingdom’s borders, is a worrying sign. There are also concerns in the United Kingdom, given that both of the recent cases in the United States arrived after transiting through Heathrow.

The individual in Orlando began to feel sick while on the plane, when he was infectious. Since the incubation

Arabian Desert image by NASA; obtained from Wikipedia Commons.
Arabian Desert image by NASA; obtained from Wikipedia Commons.

period is up to 14 days, it may be some time before we know whether the most recent case infected anyone on the flights or in the airport. The symptoms of MERS are similar to those for the flu: fever, shortness of breath, cough, and exhaustion. As Ian MacKay notes on his blog (Virology Down Under) there were 286 cases of MERS reported in April, the most yet since the virus appeared. This month’s rate of new cases is slowing, he suggests, although the fatality rate (38%) is now higher than in April. This year’s Haj falls between October 1st and 8th, which gives authorities only five months to bring the epidemic under control before perhaps three million pilgrims arrive. Given that cases of MERS have now appeared in at least 18 different countries, the epidemic may become a pandemic even before then.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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