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MERS: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome

There are a number of candidates for the next great pandemic. I’ve recently spent some time speaking and writing about the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. As things are quieting down (the government in Guinea has stated they will not report new cases to avoid a “panic”, so who knows) regarding Ebola, things are heating up with regards to another relatively new viral illness: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

MERS is caused by a coronavirus called MERS-CoV. This virus comes from the same type that caused the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic in Asia some years back. It has been linked to respiratory disease in camels, and most cases have come from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.  To date, there have been 572 cases of MERS in 15 countries, with a 30% death rate. In comparison, the mortality from SARS was 9-12%.

Once infected, the patient begins to show signs of the disease in 10-12 days. Symptoms of MERS-CoV infection include fever, productive cough, nasal congestion, and shortness of breath. In some cases, gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea occurred. If the patient worsened, the kidneys failed and lung infections like pneumonia were noted.  Most of the severe cases occurred in patients who had chronic medical conditions like diabetes, etc.

The MERS virus concerns me because it originates from an area where there are many overseas foreign workers. As a result, it is popping up far from the Middle East due to commercial air travel.  This includes the United States, where there have been 3 documented cases so far. This is unlike the pattern with Ebola, which hasn’t been (officially) documented outside of Africa. Like Ebola, however, there is no known treatment and no cure for MERS.

Interestingly, many cases where the MERS-CoV virus was identified in a patient did not involve any symptoms whatsoever.  This is good for those patients, but makes it difficult to identify who is carrying the disease.

How can you protect yourself from MERS? There is no list of recommendations that is specific to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, but general precautions against respiratory illness include:

  • Wash hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Cover nose and mouth with a tissue during coughs or sneezes; dispose of used tissues safely.
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth with your hands.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Clean and disinfect counters, doorknobs, and other frequently touched surfaces.

It’s too early to tell if MERS will be the next great pandemic, but it’s important to be ready to deal with any infectious disease. Knowledge of good respiratory hygiene and having supplies like masks and gloves will decrease your chance of contracting the disease. For information on putting together your survival sick room, check out this article:

Joe Alton, M.D., aka Dr. Bones

Joe Alton, M.D.

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