MERS virus Cases on the Rise in the Middle EastApril 29, 2014 in MENA, Saudi Arabia
28 April: A potentially fatal virus is spreading throughout the Middle East and could become a global threat. The Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) has health officials on high alert. The virus causes severe respiratory difficulties in humans. Symptoms of an infection include coughing, fever, pneumonia and shortness of breath.
The virus was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and health care officials have observed a rise in cases of infection during March and April for the past three years. In the past month, over 120 cases of MERS-CoV have been reported in the country, with over 10 reported cases each day, up from two or three daily in previous years. In 2014, there have been more cases detected than in 2012 and 2013 combined. On Thursday alone, the Saudi Arabian health ministry confirmed 36 new cases and four deaths.
The epicentre of the outbreak appears to be in Jedda, where seven cases of MERS have been confirmed in April. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), most of the infections were secondary cases in which healthcare workers or other hospital patients have been infected by someone who already has the virus.
The virus appears to be spreading. Over the weekend, Egypt confirmed its first-ever case of MERS. The Egyptian patient had been working in Riyadh before returning to the country. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), seven new cases have been confirmed, including a 4-year-old boy from Abu Dhabi, believed to have been infected by his mother who recently returned from Saudi Arabia. Cases of MERS infections have also been reported in Qatar, Jordan, Yemen, Oman, and Kuwait, the UK, Tunisia, France, Italy, Germany, Malaysia, the Philippines and Greece. In the U.S., the Center for Disease Control “has been preparing for the possibility that a MERS case could walk off an airplane onto American soil.”
The WHO has confirmed 254 cases of MERS since the virus first appeared in April 2012. Of those cases, 93 have resulted in the patient’s death (36% fatality rate).
Saudi Arabia has been accused of obscuring information about the outbreak, making it that much harder for the international health community to answer important questions. The WHO has suggested that “inadequate” infection prevention may have contributed to the outbreak, but health professionals know very little about the virus or its means of transmission. Scientists first linked MERS-CoV to bats; however recent tests have found that signs of the disease are also widespread in camels, as it often appeared in patients who worked with camels, or consumed camel meat or milk. However, it appears that the virus has evolved, making it easier to transmit the disease between humans. Currently, the virus appears to stop after the second person, yet scientists fear that the disease may evolve again, potentially cause a pandemic.
Because of the upswing in the number of cases during March and April, many scientists have considered that MERS may be a seasonal virus. However if cases continue to rise beyond April, the biggest fears may come to fruition in October, when over one million Muslims will travel to Saudi Arabia for Hajj, creating an opportunity for a spike in global infection.