Since I returned, conversation turns at every opportunity to “MERS” and it goes something like this:
“What’s this MERS thing?
“Some sort of flu”
“Is there much of it about?”
“You have to have contact with Camels”
“Do you know anyone who’s had it”
“Well, one girl I know, was in hospital, and I bet that could have been it, but I don’t know if she’d had contact with Camels.”
“I’ve got a bit of a cough, I think I’ve got it” (spot the hypochondriac in the room).
So why the sudden interest in a Virus that has only affected a hundred odd people? I thought I’d try and find out and put together a post of what I’ve found from trolling newspapers, academic publications and so forth . So here it is.
What is it?
Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Cor V to give it its full name is a Coronavirus. It’s related to ‘Flu and for that matter the common cold. It can cause respiratory and kidney failure. Its first deadly appearance was in June 2012. But it may have been around since 2007 or even earlier. It seems to have originated in Saudi Arabia.
Where did it come from?
I can’t find a definitive answer. So far the culprits range from retired Omani Racing Camels (quite convenient) to Egyptian Tomb bats. (Is this the beginning of a “return of the Mummies?”) Scientists have found anti-bodies for the virus in Omani Camels, but not in other domestic animals tested to date.
From research I looked at it seems that there may be more than one host for the disease. The virus may have jumped from its original host to other animals and then to Humans, but it also seems that there are different genetic variations of the virus. This may be due to its evolution in humans and/ or to separate and distinct infections from different animal hosts.
At Columbia University, Emerging Diseases specialist, Professor Ian Lipkin, discovered a tantalizing link between MERS and the Egyptian Tomb Bat. Last October (2012) he was invited by Ziad Memish, Saudi deputy health minister, to assist in researching the source of MERS. They collected samples from bats captured close to where the first known victim of MERS lived. From those bats The University has isolated part of the genome of a virus closely matching the MERS virus. Unfortunately due to US customs ruining their samples they were not able to get definitive proof of the link, and their findings have only recently been published after a second bat in South Africa was discovered to have a link to the MERS virus and thereby giving weight to the discovery.
Professor Lipkin along with a host of other microbiologists, epidemiologists and public health officials from Saudi Arabia and all over the world continue to search for the source of the virus.
Should we be worried?
Yes and no. Here in Riyadh, there has been a flurry of information and public health advice about the Virus leading up the Haj, (The pilgrimage to Mecca and Madinah that all Muslims should make once in their life). The Kingdom is expecting around 3,000,000 pilgrims from all over the world in the next few weeks. This would give the virus the ideal opportunity to hitch a lift around the world. However the World Health Organization has not made MERS a public health concern. They have issued public health advice on how to avoid contracting the disease, not withstanding the fact, with so many people from around the world descending on Mecca, there may far worse lurgi’s waiting to catch out the unsuspecting.
So far there have been 136 confirmed MERS infections and 58 deaths, many of those in the Kingdom (96 cases & 49 deaths). However most of those who died were already compromised with an existing condition or hospitalized. There is also reason to believe that the virus may have been circulating in humans for sometime in a milder form.
The main concern lies in the possible evolution of the virus, its ability to spread between humans and its capacity to kill. MERS is considered more deadly, but currently less transmissible than SARS.
As of today there is no vaccine against this virus, so prevention is the best protection. Where’s the hand sanitizer?