Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a coronavirus – similar to one of the viruses responsible for the common cold – that produces flu-like symptoms in those it infects. Patients with respiratory problems and existing pneumonia are especially vulnerable. However, the true danger arises from the rapid violence the virus commits upon the kidneys; untreated, the virus can cause acute kidney failure in a few days.
The most recent death was that of an otherwise healthy Riyadh man who was 37 year old.
There are currently 157 known instances of MERS infection, with two dozen more awaiting test results for confirmation. As of press time, 69 patients have died from the disease. Of those, 55 died in Saudi Arabian hospitals.
Sites of infection from the new flu strain have emerged across the middle east, with the World Health Organization (WHO) citing reports from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. The virus seems to have taken a holiday abroad at some point, as Spain, the UK, France, Italy, and Germany have also seen patients confirmed with the diagnosis.
MERS is a distant relative of Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Panic gripped the world in 2003 as SARS struck down 800 people before world health agencies were able to effectively manage the outbreak. Fortunately, MERS does not seem to be as communicable as SARS. Unfortunately, scientists and researchers know very little about the virus.
The majority of infections appear to be sporadic in origin, meaning that new victims had no contact with previous carriers. Little is known about the route of transmission at this time. One of the only links that connect the existing cases is that many had recently had contact with some type of farm animal. The WHO is very careful to state at this time that they have no idea which type of livestock may have been involved in spreading the disease, or whether the contact with the animals is an unrelated coincidence across the patient population. The only real clue that has been unearthed is the discovery on November 10th of both MERS and MERS antibodies in a camel owned by one of the infected in Saudi Arabia; however, no definitive conclusions have yet arisen from the find.
The WHO has currently released a protocol for the differential and serological diagnosis of MERS. There is no known cure. Early detection seems to be the safest guardian against negative outcomes because the severe symptoms can be treated individually long enough to survive the infection. Epidemiologists are primarily concerned with the suspected legion of undetected cases that are likely diffused throughout the world. A single carrier that is admitted to a hospital for simple diarrhea exposes to the MERS virus the most vulnerable population: the immunocompromised, the elderly, transplant recipients, and those with chronic debilitating conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. Those conditions can mask the onset of MERS until it is too late to effectively manage.
Researchers are struggling to minimize the spread and the death toll of MERS. For now, the bulk of cases of infection of the new flu strain appear to be sited in Saudi Arabia – but new countries are going red on the WHO map every week.
By Daniel Annear