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Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) - should you worry?

Mers CovThe Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, sometimes just called MERS or the coronavirus has taken 40 lives till now across the globe, most of them in Saudi Arabia which has led to public health experts worrying that the disease could reach epidemic proportions like the H1N1 swine flu virus or the SARS virus. Indians are worried about the virus because thousands of people are returning from Gulf countries every day.

What is MERS?

MERS stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome which is a viral illness that was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It is caused by a respiratory virus, a previously unseen variant of the coronavirus. It's very similar to a strain of coronavirus found in bats and not the same as the SARS virus that circulated in 2003.

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Why we need to be worried

The problem with viruses like this is multi-fold. Vaccines and medicines are usually devised after years of planning and studying a particular pathogen so that we can contain them. Unlike seasonal influenza, healthcare professionals have no idea how to deal with unknown ailments, the way it spreads and how to contain it. The last time the world faced a situation like this was a decade ago when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) broke out near Hong Kong where a local farmer died from the disease. In the next eight months, the disease affected over eight thousand people and caused 775 deaths in 37 different countries. The more worrying fact was that it had at its peak a fatality rate of 9.6% (almost one out of every ten people affected died) and despite the fact that the disease disappeared after early 2003, it's not believed to have been eradicated and the virus can still be lurking in animals.

MERS Virus Timeline

Sep 25 2012: WHO identifies a coronavirus in a Qatari man which belonged to the same family as SARS. Coronaviruses are a large family that includes a plethora of viruses from those that cause common cold to the deadly SARS.

Feb 16 2013: UK confirms there is a fresh case of a novel coronavirus infection in a British resident who had travelled to Pakistan and the Middle East.

Feb 20 2013: Sixth patient dies of the coronvirus. Disease claims six out of twelve known infected patients leading to worries about the high mortality rate.

March 27 2013: 11 people out of the 17 infected people die of the MERS virus and diseases surfaces in Germany. WHO continued to encourage all member states to continue their surveillance for severe acute respiratory infections and to carefully review any unusual patterns. It said it was currently working with international experts and countries where cases have been reported to assess the situation and review recommendations for surveillance and monitoring.

May 9 2013: Virus reaches France; all cases can be traced back to the Middle East.

May 13 2013: WHO confirms that the virus can spread from human to human sparking fears of a SARS-like epidemic.

May 29 2013: WHO conceded that the MERS-CoV is a threat to the entire world.

Jun 26 2013: Experts from around the world convene in Cairo to pool their knowledge about the virus. Experts admit they know little about the virus at that point of time and the nearest related virus is found in bats. It's speculated that the virus passed through camels via dates infected by bat droppings to humans.

Jul 6 2103: Deadly version of the coronavirus prompts emergency WHO committee meeting.

July 15 2013: Experts start worrying that state government's lax stand including not screening passengers from the Gulf countries could allow the coronavirus into Mumbai. There's also some worry about airhostesses and other airline crew falling ill, compounded by the fact that none of them are tested.

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