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Mers: A more effective killer than Sars

Publication Date : 18-05-2014


A growing number of people are being affected by the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), but the international health authorities have yet to declare a worldwide emergency.

On the face of it, there appears valid reason for concern.

When compared to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), Mers is a far more effective killer.

So far, about a third of all Mers patients have died. For Sars, less than one-tenth succumbed.

There is currently no specific treatment for Mers, nor is there a vaccine. The best a person can do, experts say, is to seek medical advice early so doctors can address any complications such as pneumonia, should that develop.

Still, the health authorities have resisted pressing the panic button.

"When all the countries were looked at... we don't see any evidence of community infection sweeping through," said Dr Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for Health Security at the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Using the example of the flu, he added: "Typically, when we see an influenza season, for example, we will see a sharp rise and many people getting infected and it's clear you get infection going through communities. We don't see that."

The lack of a travel advisory against visiting Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, where Mers is believed to have originated, means there is no clear indication yet whether thousands of people heading to Saudi Arabia for the main Muslim pilgrimage season in October will be at risk by making the trip.

When asked specifically about the haj, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said that although there are no WHO travel restrictions, the Saudi Ministry of Health has recommended that the elderly and those with chronic disease postpone going on the pilgrimage.

Echoing the WHO, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States said it "does not recommend that travellers change their plans because of Mers", as most instances of person-to-person spread have occurred in health-care workers and others such as family members of caregivers of those with the virus.

Epidemiology professor Stephen Morse from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health said the mass gathering during the pilgrim season could increase the spread of Mers due to close proximity between people.

But he added that more important than telling people to stay away, is telling people to be watchful for signs of the virus, as early detection can help save lives.

At this point, medical experts say they are not yet certain how the virus spreads.

Dr Fukuda adds that while the situation has become more serious, there is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission. In other words, it is not yet a pandemic.

The best guess of doctors right now is that the virus is carried in water droplets, spreading through exposure to an infected person who is sneezing and coughing.

Yet, it seems this only happens after prolonged exposure. People seem to have low risk of contracting the disease through casual contact. For example, although one infected American health worker travelled on a crowded flight from Saudi Arabia to the US, no other person on the plane has been diagnosed with Mers.

Prof Morse said Mers is not yet more contagious than Sars, but that could change, especially if the virus mutates.

"This is a dynamic picture... We don't know enough of how people get it, it's very unclear," he said.


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