A relatively new-to-humans virus, MERS was first discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It was believed at the time that the virus jumped from camels to humans. Cases of MERS spiked around March-April last year.
While this year’s outbreak is spiking at around the same time, there are fears that things may be much worse with the increased severity and frequency of cases, with the World Health Organisation reporting 78 confirmed cases since the beginning of 2014.
Saudi Arabia has already made moves to sack its current health minister, reportedly because of his mismanagement of the growing outbreak.
MERS, a coronavirus, causes acute respiratory illness, shortness of breath and in severe cases organ failure and death. The virus can begin much like a common cold and currently there is no vaccine or cure for the virus.
Here are a few things you need to know about MERS:
MERS is more deadly than SARS
While both are caused by a class of viruses that cause respiratory illness – or cornoavirus – it seems that the former has claimed more lives than its cousin. SARS was estimated to have killed a total of 10 per cent overall of the estimated 8,000 people infected. MERS has killed roughly 30 per cent of confirmed cases. Health experts believe this is because the onset of MERS is much faster and generally requires closer human-to-human contact to be transmitted.
It may be more contagious now than ever before
Scientists suspect but aren’t yet certain, that the virus in humans comes from contact with camels. But recent reports have shown as many as 75 per cent of all MERS cases have been transmitted through human contact. The fear is that the virus may have changed into something different, or more contagious. Whether or not this is because of inadequate infection control measures remains to be seen. Fortunately, their have been few cases of ‘tertiary’ transmission of MERS, meaning that once the virus has spread from the initial infected person to another it is not likely to spread any further. Nonetheless the rate at which the virus is spreading between humans has the WHO on alert.
There’s no way of knowing how many people are carrying the disease
Official reports by the WHO state the confirmed total number of MERS cases at 254 with 50 new cases reported in the last week. However health experts in affected countries have warned that the number could be greater, with some time lag confirming individual cases. For example, saudi Arabia is reporting 297 cases in their country alone. Unfortunately these are just the severe cases. Many may be infected and not know it yet with symptoms so mild they may not be reported at all.
MERS is spreading beyond the Middle East
The recent spike in confirmed cases have mainly been reported in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But cases of the virus have been confirmed in other countries such as Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, Omar, Qatar, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, UK, Tunisia, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. “It is very likely that cases will continue to be exported to other countries,” the WHO says.”Whether these cases will [spread further] will depend of the capacity of the receiving country to rapidly detect, diagnose and implement appropriate infection prevention and control measures.”