MERS Virus: Why Doctors Are Calling It a "Threat to the Entire World"

A newly discovered SARS-like virus has health authorities across the globe massively worried about the potential effect. The potential has worried Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization, so much that she called it "a threat to the entire world" in a speech given in Geneva Switzerland.

The new virus has emerged quickly and worries health authorities because they are unable to fully determine its qualities, effective treatments, or even what the proper precautions to take against are. Health authorities are attempting to meet this threat but much of the critical information still remains unknown.

The new virus has ties to the Middle East, which has lead it to have the name of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERs-CoV. The WHO has started tracking the virus since September of 2012 and is reporting that there have been 49 cases confirmed by laboratory analysis. Of those, 27 have died from the disease or complications relating to the disease. While those numbers sound incredibly bad, the true fatality rate is unknown until the full extent of the cases become known. If a variety of milder cases are found, the fatality rate could go down.

Although its name suggests that it is limited to the Middle East, cases have been found in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Tunisia. The WHO suspects that these are from people who received the disease in the other countries it has been spotted in such as Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

However there are signs that people who have never been to the Middle East may have been exposed to MERS. A man who was the hospital roommate of an infected 65-year-old Frenchman who died has developed the disease. He had not previously been to the Middle East. WHO officials said that it raised the possibility that the disease could spread through prolonged contact.

This is not the same as generalized contact like a human cold, which would raise fears of the possibility of a pandemic scenario emerging in affected countries.

MERS itself is related to the common cold and SARS. SARS infected more then 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in 2003 before being brought under control. MERS acts like the common cold and attacks the respiratory system, but with much more severe symptoms. Cough and fever can turn severe and may be followed by pneumonia and kidney failure. The WHO has also observed diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms in patients with disease.

Current medical authorities do not have exact knowledge about the particulars of the disease. For example they have found out that the previous assumption of the waiting period of the disease of one to nine days was shorter than the actual waiting period of up to 12 days. This means that a longer quarantine is required to ensure that an infected are not released into general society.

The majority of cases thus far have been in older men with previous health conditions, but knowledge of a less mild form in other types of patients and its effects is unknown at this time. It is not known exactly how humans contract the virus.

It is this lack of knowledge that brought out Chan's remarks. Speaking about the disease she said that "We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat. We do not know where the virus hides in nature. We do not know how people are getting infected. Until we answer these questions, we are empty-handed when it comes to prevention. These are alarm bells. And we must respond."

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Gabriel Rodriguez

Gabriel Rodriguez is currently studying for a Masters in Applied Economics at Georgetown. He is a graduate of New College of Florida with a degree in Economics. He is interested in econometrics, statistical analysis, behavioral economics, and developmental economics.

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