I have blogged about MERS before on this site, but this disease has faded from the news for the last year, until the most recent outbreak in South Korea. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome is an infectious disease caused by a corona virus, in the same manner as the SARS outbreak of 2003. The disease first appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and has continued to circulate there since. In Saudi Arabia the virus has seemed to spread particularly well in a health care setting. While a number of infected people –many of whom have been health care professionals- have carried the virus to other countries, in every case the outbreak has been contained. The outbreak in Korea has been different because of its scale –eleven people have died and over three thousand have been quarantined- and speed.
South Korean citizens have criticized the government for responding too slowly to the outbreak. One person, for example, broke voluntary quarantine and traveled to China, where he ultimately fell ill. There is no question, however, that South Korea is now taking the outbreak seriously. Over 1,800 schools and daycares are closed, even though the World Health Organization (WHO) says that this measure is unnecessary. An entire small Korean village (approximate population 130) has been placed under quarantine with guards manning checkpoints. The authorities are tracking peoples’ cellphone location to make sure that they are remaining in quarantine, and health authorities are checking on people at their homes. At the time of this writing, it seems as though MERS may have peaked in South Korea, and hopefully will soon begin to fade.
As others have commented, however, not all countries have the state capacity and resources to mount such a response to MERS. The real risk for this disease is that it will travel to a country without a good health infrastructure, or that is in the midst of a civil war (Syria, Yemen), where authorities would be unlikely to bring it under control. As with Ebola, if this threat is to be eliminated, it must be eradicated at its source in the Saudi Arabian peninsula. My larger concern is the sheer number of infectious disease threats that are now global challenges. Highly pathogenic avian influenza in chickens and turkeys in the Midwest could not only impact agriculture, but the nation’s ability to create an influenza vaccine, given that most influenza vaccinations in the U.S. are still created based on an egg production system. SARS remains a challenge in West Africa. Avian influenza continues to jump to people in South Asia, China and Egypt. For this reason, we need sustained global leadership to address these transnational health challenges, which cannot come from the WHO alone.
If you are interested in infectious disease and public policy, you can see my own articles on influenza for free online. I have published one article on the World Health Organization’s pandemic influenza plan and Indonesia, and another article on conspiracy theories in the 2009 influenza epidemic.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University