Scientists in Qatar are learning more about the potential causes and treatments for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), following a successful laboratory culturing of the virus.
The latest development was announced by the Supreme Council of Health yesterday, which is working with the Erasmus Medical Center (EMC) in the Netherlands and the World Health Organization (WHO).
According to the SCH, isolating MERS in a laboratory could help healthcare providers figure out how to prevent and control the virus, and develop vaccines and other treatments for it.
Speaking to Doha News, EMC virologist Dr. Bart L. Haagmans said the virus was isolated after taking a swab from a dromedary camel in Qatar. He said the next step was to see if that virus is the same one making humans sick.
To tackle this question, the SCH said it would be acting on a recommendation from the WHO to launch a national sero-survey at the end of March. Such surveys are typically used to measure immunity in a population by testing blood for a range of substances.
In Qatar, the sero-survey will entail testing the blood of animals and workers to determine risk factors for MERS.
According to Haagmans, the survey results could specifically help address risk factors associated with “zoonotic transmission,” from animals to humans, and how to reduce them.
More about MERS
In the 18 months since it was first discovered, MERS has infected at least 189 people, killing 82 of them, according to the latest figures from the WHO. The vast majority of cases have been detected in the Gulf region, especially in Saudi Arabia.
So far, eight people inside of Qatar have been diagnosed with MERS, and four of those patients have died. Additionally, a Qatari man diagnosed in 2012 in the UK died in London last July. There have been no new cases here since November.
Currently, there is no cure for MERS, though some patients appear to respond to medicine that treats pneumonia symptoms, like coughing, fever and difficulty breathing.
The cause of the virus remains unknown, though MERS has been detected in camels in the UAE and Qatar. Those who come into close contact with MERS patients could also catch the virus.
To reduce the risk of infection, the SCH said in a statement:
People at high risk such as chronic diseases or immuno-compromised should avoid close contact with animals when visiting farms or barn areas where the virus is known to be potentially circulating. For the general public, when visiting a farm or a barn, general hygiene measures, such as regular hand washing before and after touching animals, avoiding contact with sick animals, and following food hygiene practices, should be adhered to.
The SCH has repeatedly assured residents that it is prepared to handle any outbreaks of the virus. It has also established a hotline for anyone with questions or symptoms: +974-6674 0951.