What is MERS?
MERS or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome is a viral disease that affects the respiratory system causing severe breathing distress, although the infection can be asymptomatic at times. The disease first surfaced in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia in 2012. Since it is a newly emerging disease, most people are less aware of it. The condition has spread to several countries across the world, including the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa. While there is a high risk of an outbreak in India because of the high traffic between the Middle East and India, healthcare experts reiterate that there is no need to panic.
What are the Causes of MERS?
MERS is caused due to a novel coronavirus (MERS©\CoV). Coronaviruses are a big family of viruses that can lead to diseases varying from common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). MERS is a strain of coronavirus which is a cousin of the SARS virus that appeared in 2002-03, killing almost 800 people around the world. The common MERS symptoms are acute respiratory illness, such as pneumonia, with high fever, coughing, and breathlessness. Other symptoms like diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, body aches and kidney failure have also been observed. Although the infection may not be as deadly as other recent outbreaks like Ebola; the fatality rate can be high among individuals with a weakened immune system, such as the aged or an underlying medical condition. While some had only mild symptoms like common cold or they showed no symptoms at all and recovered.
The infection itself is believed to occur as a result of close contact with an infected individual. The symptoms caused by MERS are described as atypical pneumonia, as the cause is not traced to one of the common bacteria or viruses, but is caused by a less common subtype of the coronavirus. There are better-known variants of the virus that cause the common cold and SARS, but this particular subtype only appeared in 2012. Although more research is needed into the spread of this virus, it is clear that contagion does not occur as easily as in the case of SARS.
MERS Health Facts
- Originated from Bats - A zoonotic virus is a type of virus that can be passed on to humans from animals, as in the case of the coronavirus subtype responsible for MERS. The evolution of the virus is not fully understood, but based on current knowledge it appears that the virus originated in bats and transmitted to bats long-time back. Scientists were able to arrive at this detection through a detailed analysis of different virus genomes.
- Transmission from Camels - Although the virus may have originally evolved in bats, it was transmitted to camels in the distant past. Strains of MERS-CoV similar to human strains have been found in camels in many countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, UAE and Oman. As the virus continued to evolve, it eventually made an evolutionary leap, allowing for transmission to humans. This would earn it the classification of a zoonotic virus.
- First Recorded Case of MERS - The first confirmed case of MERS infection was recorded in Saudi Arabia in 2012. This first patient was a Saudi national, who owned four camels. Scientists investigating the origins of the virus later found that there were traces of the MERS-CoV in 74% of the single-humped camels in the country. Today, the infection can also be spread through human to human contact.
- High Fatality Rate - MERS symptoms include those similar to many other upper-respiratory tract infections, but it can also cause complications like kidney failure that proves to be fatal in many cases, as there is a mortality rate of roughly 36 percent. Serious illness can result in respiratory failure requiring mechanical ventilation and treatment in intensive care unit (ICU). As pointed out by medical professionals most of these fatalities are limited to individuals suffering from compromised immune functions, such as those suffering from conditions like AIDS, diabetes, chronic lung disease and cancer, as well as old aged people.
- MERS is Just One of Many Diseases Caused by this Family of Viruses - As of today; there are five different types of the coronavirus. Most of these cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract infections like the common cold, but the infamous SARS disease is a more worrying disease caused by one of these subtypes. The SARS outbreak of 2002-03 claimed over 800 lives worldwide.
- The Risk of Contagion - The risk of infection via human to human contact is relatively low. This is most likely to occur when there is direct close contact, such as when providing care to an infected patient, without the use of adequate protection. A higher risk of infection is posed from interacting with camels and through poor hygiene practices when on farms, barns and settlements with camels.
- Increased Risk of Contagion from Longer Incubation Period - Initially the disease was thought to have a short incubation period, but doctors found that this duration could be longer, as much as 14 days, during which time the asymptomatic patient could pose a risk of infection to others.
- Middle East Travel, Mainly to Saudi Arabia Puts you at Greater Risk - Healthcare experts and WHO have cautioned visitors about travel to the infected regions in the middle-east, with an especially high risk for older men and those who are sick. Postpone your visit to the affected areas and if it's important to travel to these areas, then it is recommended to follow few precautions to keep yourself protected and safe. However, this trend could change fairly rapidly and the global health body has not issued any advisory warning against traveling to these countries.
- No Reason to Panic - Although, the disease itself is more deadly with a higher fatality rate as compared to SARS, the risk of infection is much lower as it is not transmitted easily.
- Precautions to Follow in the Middle East - Anyone living or passing through the Middle East or in any of the affected areas should avoid the consumption of camel milk or any raw or undercooked camel products. Camel meat and milk are healthy to eat and can be consumed after pasteurization, proper cooking and other heat treatments; but should also be handled carefully to avoid cross-contamination with the raw foods. Anyone coming in proximity to camels should also wear masks, gloves and protective clothing which should be washed every day after coming in contact with the animals. Avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth with uncleaned hands. Always make it a point to wash and sanitize hands thoroughly before and after coming in contact with the animals. Try to stay away from sick animals.
- Treatment and Vaccination for MERS - Till date there is no known cure for MERS. Treatment at present is limited to providing relief from the symptoms and preventing any complications to occur. You can use a room humidifier or a hot shower to lessen your symptoms like cough or sore throat. Always be hydrated and take rest. If you are worried about your symptoms then contact a doctor. For serious cases, treatment is to care for vital organ functions. Researchers are working on the development of vaccines, but there have been no breakthroughs so far.
- 26 Countries Have Reported Cases of MERS - The infection has appeared indigenously only in 9 countries in the Middle East, but this does not make it any less serious to the rest of the world. Through international travel, MERS infection has also spread to other countries in the world, including Austria, China, France, Germany, Italy, Republic of Korea, Thailand, United Kingdom, and the United States of America, among others. The WHO has reported 1,626 cases globally, with 586 fatalities. The majority of these cases were reported from Saudi Arabia, with more than 300 of the deaths from the country alone. Most recently, a case of MERS infection was detected in Bangkok, Thailand, on the 22nd of Jan, resulting in quarantining of many who may have been exposed to the virus.