Posted by: Chris Maloney | May 16, 2014

What is MERS?

When you hear about a terrible killing disease that passes from person to person, it is reasonable to wonder what it is. I’m not someone who just believes the standard line that MERS isn’t that infectious. But I’m not sure it’s that deadly either.

Time’s take on MERS.

According to the official report, you need to have direct contact with an infected person, such as caring for them. But neither U.S. traveler was likely to be a caregiver of someone in the middle east. One of them was in Florida, and the other in Indiana. They were on plane flights with hundreds of other people before they disembarked. In order to avoid a panic, the CDC is not publicly telling everyone on their flight patterns to be checked. Here’s the CDC preliminary report from this month (here).

Researchers, “found a small but real risk of spread from those infected during flight. The risk ranged from one new infection in a five-hour flight in first class, to 15 infections from a “superspreader” (a highly contagious carrier) travelling 13 hours in economy. Those infected would probably show no signs when disembarking, says Brian Coburn, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Biomedical Modeling at the University of California Los Angeles. ‘These newly infected individuals may be difficult to identify and could cause new outbreaks.’”(quote from CMAJ article by Carolyn Brown)

In Jordan, the deaths of two patients sent them looking for MERS-CoV and they then found it in seven other people, including six hospital workers. Without deaths, the testing would not have been done. That hospital found a 10% infection rate and a 22% fatality rate (here).

The official Lancet report lists 261 confirmed cases and 93 deaths, with the source and origin of the MERS cornavirus remaining unknown (here).

While Time mentions MERS and SARS in the same breath, the experts say this isn’t the same level of infection risk. The virus is widespread in camels, and doesn’t attack humans in the same way.

But the virus started spreading rapidly in April, and most of those transmissions were human-to-human. So a camel epidemic may have mutated to possible human-to-human one. The cornavirus  is very good at mutating rapidly to adapt to its hosts.

Unlike what you would think, people who spend a lot of time around camels aren’t getting infected. In testing, 74% of the camels tested positive for the virus.

So is this a new virus? “It may well be that MERS occurred much earlier than 2012 in humans, but was not recognized,” says Dr. Fontanet and his research team. (CMAJ article)

Anyone who has forgotten the avian flu should have a look at the extraordinary death rate associated with that particular virus. Yet we have yet to see the expected pandemic from that virus sweep the globe. Here is my tongue-in-cheek run up on that particular pandemic. Pardon the website, it’s not my forte.


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