A viral outbreak has spread through the Middle East, killing 47 individuals and rendering many other infected patients sick. The viral infection is alleged to have been transmitted by the bat population.
The disease is called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and was initially reported in 2012. Thus far, the source of the disease is suspected to emanate from four countries close to the Arabian Peninsula and is primarily spread on a person-to-person basis, through close contact.
As the pathogen is relatively new, currently, there is little information known about the disease. Scientists are, however, aware of the taxonomical classification of virus that causes MERS, called MERS Coronavirus (MERS-CoV). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), MERS-CoV triggers severe acute respiratory illness in those infected, which manifests as the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
However, it should be noted that MERS-CoV is an entirely different virus to that which causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), although both conditions stem from infection by a coronavirus.
As of Aug. 1, the World Health Organization had identified three new cases of the disease. One case includes a 67-year-old female who remains in hospital, whilst the other two cases were isolated to two healthcare professionals, who had been in close contact with laboratory-verified MERS patients.
A panel of scientists have sought to blame the bat population for the spread of disease, based upon genetic sequence similarities between betacoronaviruses, found in bats, and the MERS virus, identified within infected humans. Scientists posit that transmission from bat to human is possible through direct contact, bat excretions and via other, unconfirmed intermediates.
The scientific investigators travelled to Bisha, the location of the first reported case of MERS, before the outbreak gained traction and killed 47 people. The team acquired bats from the region and began to perform genetic testing using a DNA-amplification technique, called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Only one of the collected bats tested positive for the MERS virus; this has resulted in many suggesting the relationship between bats and humans, in terms of disease spread, to be relatively tenuous.
The CDC website discusses the worrying spread of the disease, which has shown to be adept in disseminating through various Middle Eastern countries and from person-to-person; approximately half of all those infected have been killed. So far, however, the disease is yet to have been identified within the United States.
In spite of this, the CDC has adopted a multipronged approach to tackle the problem, as and when it materializes. The body has developed diagnostic assays to detect antibodies, manufactured by the patient’s immune system upon infection. In addition, MERS-CoV testing kits are being rolled out to health departments to ensure America is adequately prepared for any signs of the disease’s spread, whilst maintaining ties with international healthcare organizations to offer advice and coordinate effective strategies to halt disease spread.
Travelers are also advised to remain cautious when visiting places around the Arabian Peninsula. Visitors should frequently wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, cover their mouth and nose whilst sneezing, dispose of used tissues, avoid close contact with sick and disinfect frequently touched surfaces. Furthermore, any patient found to have severe acute respiratory illness, upon their return from a Middle Eastern country, should seek immediate laboratory testing to eliminate MERS-CoV as a possibility.
Current treatment strategies are particularly primitive, focusing upon relieving symptoms; worryingly, there is currently no viable cure or vaccine for MERS-CoV.
The exact mechanism of transmission remains sketchy. Although scientists continue to investigate bats as a potential reservoir of the virus, they are also due to investigate other animals. Let’s hope they are able to find the source, and a means of treatment, before the viral outbreak spreads any further.
By: James Fenner