In the past 2 weeks the WHO reported that the deadly MERS-CoV virus spread to 5 new countries, Malaysia, the Philippines, Egypt, Greece, and the United States. All five cases were foreign nationals who became ill while working or traveling in the Middle East. The spread of the virus to new countries, coupled with a spike in MERS-CoV cases in the Arabian Peninsula, sparked concern at the WHO in late April, where an urgent risk assessment meeting was convened.
Experts in MERS-CoV “cannot rule out an increase in the transmissibility of the virus” based on current data. However, several factors indicate that the recent increase in cases is not the beginning of a pandemic:
- Most cases of MERS-CoV are caught from another human who caught the virus in the community. These cases tend to be mild or without symptoms.
- There are only a handful of cases that are known to have spread from human to human to human.
- The recent exported cases have not spread to other humans.
- There are relatively few instances of transmission within households.
- There has been no increase in the size of household or community clusters of the disease.
Instead, WHO believes it is more likely that inadequate infection control measures within healthcare settings, as well as intensive case tracking are more likely to blame for recent outbreaks. Environmental factors may be playing a role too, since a similar uptick in cases was noted last year in the spring. Even though a pandemic may not be at hand, more people will continue die from MERS-CoV as medicine knows little about how to prevent or treat it.
In the meantime, the WHO is recommending the following:
- increased vigilance in infection control measures in health care settings. In particular, since people with MERS-CoV infection can have mild or unusual symptoms at first, health care workers should apply standard precautions to all patients at all times, regardless of the initial diagnosis.
- “urgent investigation” into how the virus is transmitted: both from human to human and from the environment to humans
- people at high risk for severe disease should take precautions when visiting farms, barns, and markets where camels are present, including
- avoiding contact with camels
- proper hand washing
- avoiding drinking raw camel milk
- avoiding eating food that may be contaminated with animal secretions unless it has been washed, peeled or cooked.
- travelers (including guest workers, tourists, and pilgrims) coming from MERS-affected countries should be more aware of the possibility of MERS infection, and promptly seek medical attention should they exhibit signs of illness.
Neither the CDC nor the WHO are recommending border screenings or border closings since it is not known if these measures will slow the spread of the disease.
World Health Organization. “WHO Risk Assessment: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV).” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, 24 Apr. 2014. Web. 2 May 2014.