Should we be concerned about MERS?

Is MERS the next Ebola? Or does the world have it “contained”?

MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is caused by a coronavirus. MERS-CoV (MERS corona virus) was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 (subsequently discovered to be widespread in dromedary camels) but it’s only recently that the news cycle (here, here, and here, for example) has really picked up on MERS-CoV. This is because a person with MERS-CoV traveled to South Korea and sparked a large hospital-associated outbreak. This outbreak has resulted in 149 people infected and killed 15, so far. Recent reports indicate 1 case spread to China as well, so the spread throughout Asia may not be over. Prior to this, people with MERS-CoV were only infecting a couple close contacts so there was no sustained large scale transmission. Before South Korea, MERS-CoV was isolated to the Middle East (hence its name), more specifically, Saudi Arabia with limited spread elsewhere in the Middle East. The tricky part is, scientists think transmission is through the droplets in the air but they don’t really know how MERS-CoV is spread from person to person, or from camel to person. And if you aren’t sure exactly how people get it from camels, or pass it to one another, that can make finding a treatment or vaccine harder.

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Global map of countries with confirmed cases of MERS-CoV. Courtesy of WHO, June 15, 2015.

You may remember a few years ago there was an international scare about a new coronavirus that caused SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). SARS-CoV was first reported in Asia in 2013 and spread around the world to more than 2 dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe and Asia. SARS and MERS are caused by the same family of viruses. But while SARS-CoV died out in 2004, MERS-CoV seems to be picking up steam.

MERS is another great example of a zoonotic disease, a disease that originates in animals but spreads to humans. While we can’t say exactly what is causing this spread from camels to humans, and why it hasn’t happened before if MERS-CoV is endemic in dromedary camels, zoonotic diseases have been the cause of human disease for a very long time. And diseases will continue to spread beyond their initial transmission chain and geographic area because interconnected countries allow easier spread of disease.

The interconnected world does have at least one benefit however. When countries are honest about the infectious diseases within their borders and allow that information to leave their borders, the world is more prepared for that disease. One of the issues that allowed the South Korea outbreak to get so large is that doctors at the hospital weren’t thinking MERS-CoV when trying to diagnose the initial case. Now that the world is aware that MERS-CoV is spreading, more doctors and public health officials will hopefully be able to make the diagnosis faster, allowing for better control of the case and earlier tracking/isolation of their contacts. So to answer the original questions: no, MERS-CoV is not something the general public needs to be concerned about, and as of right now, MERS-CoV is not the next Ebola. While the world may not have MERS-CoV contained at this moment, at least the world is aware of it and can prepare for it as much as possible.

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