Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a viral respiratory disease of zoonotic origin caused by a newly discovered Coronavirus – the MERS – CoV. The Coronavirus family cause a spectrum of diseases, ranging from the innocuous common cold to the rapidly fatal SARS. MERS – CoV originated in Saudi Arabia in Spring 2012, and spread to the surrounding areas, becoming firmly endemic to the Arabia peninsula. The current outbreak in South Korea is the most massive outbreak outside of the Middle East. As of June 15, there have been 149 confirmed cases in the Republic of Korea and 1 in China. The disease has a startling 36% mortality, deaths usually associated with co-morbidities like cancer, chronic lung and kidney disease, and diabetes.
Early symptoms are non – specific and related to the respirator system.
According to the WHO Fact Sheet, typical MERS symptoms include fever, non – productive cough and shortness of breath. Pneumonia is common, but not always present. Gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhoea, have also been reported. The virus appears to cause more severe disease in older people, people with weakened immune systems, and those with chronic diseases.
The virus does not spread easily from one person to another.
Human to human transmission requires prolonged close contact such as living with or caring for a person infected with MERS. No sustained community spread has been documented. Camels are the major reservoir host, and an important source of animal to human transmission.
MERS may have a seasonal pattern, with more cases occurring around spring.
There are no specific treatments or vaccines available.
Treatment is mostly supportive. Scientists are working to develop a specific vaccine for the virus.
Multiple instances of the virus spreading in heath care facilities have be recorded, since it is difficult to diagnose MERS based on the early non – specific symptoms. Thus, facilities currently caring for suspected or confirmed cases of MERS need to take stringent precautions to prevent its spread to other patients, healthcare workers or visitors.
The WHO and CDC have advised no travel precautions or trade restrictions related to MERS.
(Image: An electron micrograph of a thin section of MERS-CoV, showing the spherical particles within the cytoplasm of an infected cell.)