As the number of people contracting the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in neighboring Saudi Arabia continues to rise, a leading virologist has reassured people that the spread of the severe, pneumonia-like disease appears to be slowing.
According to the latest update provided by Qatar’s Supreme Council of Health (SCH), there have not been any new reported cases of MERS since November of last year.
— وزارة الصحة العامة (@MOPHQatar) April 25, 2014
However, concern remains as summer approaches and people in Qatar travel. Saudi Arabia is a particularly popular destination during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins at the end of next month.
In recent days, Saudi health authorities have confirmed two new deaths from MERS, bringing the death toll in the kingdom to 111.
The number of recorded cases of the virus there nearly doubled last month, and some 396 people in Saudi have so far contracted MERS since it was discovered less than two years ago. The outbreak prompted the World Health Organization to send a team to Jeddah to help manage the crisis.
Meanwhile, in the last week, the US and Egypt have reported their first cases of MERS. Both patients are males who are believed to have recently traveled to Saudi.
The news has prompted Egypt’s health ministry to encourage very young and elderly citizens, as well as those with chronic conditions, to postpone pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia for the time being.
Worldwide, this is what the virus’s path looked like as of late last month:
424 confirmed #MERS-CoV cases by 30 April 2014. See latest epi update by @ECDC_EU: http://t.co/Yg4NbTNPkH pic.twitter.com/khLiJss51Z
— ECDC Influenza (@ECDC_Flu) April 30, 2014
But Ian M. Mackay, as associate professor from the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Center at the University of Queensland, has been charting the virus and said that MERS now appears to be spreading at a slower pace.
Addressing the recent outbreak in Saudi, Mackay told Doha News this was likely due to healthcare missteps, rather than changes in the MERS virus:
“It looks like there is a slowing of cases right now– but it’s early and hard to say more. We know that some of the recent MERS-CoV sequences showed no sign of being different to those that have been among us since at least 2012.
So the recent rise in viral detections seems to come down to some problems with preventing infection from spreading within hospitals – perhaps some extra testing to identify what is going on beyond the most ill cases and perhaps there are some role for seasonal changes.”
There is no cure for MERS, which presents as a respiratory infection and includes symptoms such as coughing, fever and difficulty breathing. Scientists are still trying to learn exactly how the virus spreads.
According to Mackay, most patients appear to have been infected after coming into direct contact with an ill person – such as a relative or healthcare worker. He added:
“From what we know right now, you can be sitting next to someone who is not obviously sick and not acquire a MERS-CoV infection. In humans, transmission seems to stop in most instances after just a single transfer from a sick person to a recipient.”
Intensive tests are underway throughout the world to increase knowledge about MERS. During his Jeddah visit, WHO team leader Dr. Jaouad Mahjour said:
“We need to understand how people got infected in health-care settings, and in the community; we are looking into possible infection routes and whether the virus has changed its ability to more easily infect people.”
Mahjour added that the key to limiting the spread of the disease was for hospital and healthcare workers to use established infection prevention and control methods.
The origin of MERS also remains unclear. Many experts have said that camels are the main source of the disease, but how the virus is then passed on to humans is still unestablished.
WHO advises those at high-risk of catching MERS (including people with diabetes, chronic lung disease, pre-existing renal failure, or those who are have weak immune systems) to avoid contact with camels, maintain good hand hygiene and avoid drinking raw milk or eating food that may be contaminated with animal secretions or products unless they are properly washed, peeled, or cooked.
For the general public, when visiting a farm, live animal markets or a barn, they should avoid touching sick animals and wash their hands regularly after touching all other animals – especially camels.
In Qatar, eight people have been diagnosed with MERS so far, and four of them have died. Additionally, a Qatari man diagnosed with the virus in the UK in 2012 died last July.
Anyone with questions or symptoms can call the SCH’s dedicated MERS hotline: +974-6674 0951.