UPDATE (5/14/14): The latest from the WHO has the MERS virus rising in urgency, but it still falls short of a global health emergency. There is more information in this article.
UPDATE (5/3/14): We are still seeing cases of MERS. In fact, an American traveler was recently diagnosed after returning home. It’s important to note that as of this writing, the patient is in stable condition, and he is not considered a threat to the general public. There is still is no reason to panic over this disease. While there have been a few hundred cases worldwide, you can avoid it if you travel carefully and pay attention to the latest updates from the WHO.
By now, you have probably heard that there is a virus related to SARS that has infected 49 people worldwide (as of writing this), killing 27 of them. Most cases of the disease have occurred in the Middle East and for the moment, the disease has primarily been transmitted in health care facilities or between family members (in other words, only in close quarters).
What are the symptoms of MERS-CoV?
MERS-CoV is genetically related to SARS. As such, it is largely a respiratory illness. A fever and a cough are common symptoms, and they can be severe, leading to serious respiratory infection in the form of pneumonia and having a devastating affect on other organs (kidney failure has also been seen in many of the cases).
How dangerous is MERS-CoV?
Margaret Chan, who heads up the World Health Organization, called MERS-CoV “a threat to the entire world.” While this may seem paranoid at first, there are two things to consider when reading her statement. The first is that we know very little about this disease. It most likely originated from an animal host, but even the animal is not known.
Update 8/13/13: there have now been several reports that camels could be the host of this coronavirus. More research is needed to confirm these findings, but they do present strong evidence. For more on this, see this article from the BBC.
There is no treatment or vaccination available and to speak frankly, scientists wouldn’t know where to begin. The second thing to consider is the mortality rate. So far the disease has killed 52% of patients, which is an alarming number.
What is the threat to travelers
While there is good reason to be concerned about this disease, there are not any travel warnings that have been released because of it. For the moment, cases have originated in the Middle East and it’s not yet clear how the transmission to humans (and between humans) is happening, but it does appear that the disease is difficult to contract. It’s also important to note, that many patients so far have occurred in older men who already have at least one other medical condition. All of that said, MERS-CoV is worrying because we know very little about it and we don’t yet know how the disease will evolve. Before traveling, have a look at the WHO website for all of the latest news.
We recently wrote about the chances of a major pandemic. This disease could end up falling in that category, or it could not. It’s simply too early to tell. The best we can do is stay informed and practice the smart travel health practices that you would anyway.
If you have any thoughts on this disease, please share them in the comments below.