MERS update

Additional news about Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, has been trickling in over the last week since I posted this piece, so here’s an update — and it’s almost all good news.

In Saudi Arabia, “ground zero” for MERS, the number of new cases has fallen from an average of 11 per day to 4 per day — very good news. And apparently yesterday and today there were no new cases reported.

There have been two new cases in Iran, the first for that country. They are linked to a pilgrim from Saudi Arabia.

MERS is known to exist widely in camels and in some instances in bats, but researchers still don’t understand the vector and possible mutations that have caused it to jump to humans. They are starting to test cats and dogs to see if they are possible carriers as well.

By all appearances, the medical community is reacting thoughtfully and responsibly. The WHO and CDC have disseminated information worldwide and through the US, and hospitals are mobilizing to be ready in case there are outbreaks. But now that there are more people looking at MERS and discussing the virus, there seems to be a consensus building that we don’t need to worry that much about it — at least right now. After all, MERS has been in humans for three years now, and we haven’t seen widespread outbreaks. Apparently this virus is not easily transmitted — that’s the simple truth, and it’s saving us. There is still ample reason for caution: so far, MERS has had a fatality rate of around 30%, so it’s extremely serious for those who catch it. Plus, as I said earlier we don’t understand its transmission vector, there’s no vaccine to prevent infection, and there’s no “cure.” But no one should be panicking, because the best people looking at this don’t expect that it will spread widely.

The most important thing right now is for people travelling to and from the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, to practice good personal sanitary habits, and to stay away from hospitals in that region if they can (since most of the cases so far can be traced to in-hospital infections). Medical workers travelling in that region should be especially careful. The annual hajj pilgrimage by Muslims is of concern, and there is already talk of what measures should be taken by Saudi Arabia an by pilgrims to deal with MERS — and also some talk of encouraging Muslims to postpone their hajj pilgrimage to a future year when MERS is better under control.

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