MERS – Should we be afraid?

By Alwin Moo

With the announcement of the new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus, labelled the “SARS of the Middle East”, should we be afraid and prepare for the worse?

MERS is classified as a coronavirus and the first case was reported in 2012, countries with reported cases include Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Jordan, Qatar, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria, Bangladesh, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

A report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that there has been 811 cases of MERS in humans and 312 dead with a 38.5% fatality rate. Cause? Camels. Researchers found a 99.9% similarity of the virus in camels and the ones contracted by humans.

The case closest to home was in Malaysia, where a 54 year-old man died on 13 April in the southern state of Johor, and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) listed MERS as transmissible from human-to-human. With the threat in such close proximity to us, there is a risk that we might catch MERS.

A popular video game, Plague Inc. by Ndemic Creations that includes a “realistic set of variables to simulate the spread and severity of the plague.” While fictional, the key learning point is that a virus like MERS, if left unchecked, can spread quickly and have deadly consequences. We can also look at a similar virus like SARS with more than 8,273 cases and 755 deaths. Surprisingly, it only has a death rate of 9.6%, so compared to the 38.5% of MERS, the statistics of SARS compared to MERS is nothing.

In reality, cases are isolated – there is no increased evidence of human-to-human transmission of the MERS virus. So the next time you head to the Arabian Peninsula, here are some precautionary measures, adapted from the Ministry of Health website, you can take to reduce the risk of contracting MERS:

  • Observe good personal hygiene at all times;
  • Practise frequent hand washing (e.g. before handling food or eating, after going to toilet, or when hands are soiled);
  • Avoid close contact with persons suffering from acute respiratory infections (e.g. someone who is coughing);
  • Avoid contact with camels and other live farm or wild animals, including not visiting camel farms. If contact has been made, thoroughly wash hands with soap.

Symptoms include cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, diarrhoea, high fever of over 38°C.

There is currently no vaccines nor medications for MERS but the Ministry of Health in Singapore calls on us to maintain vigilance against the virus.