It’s a respiratory illness with such symptoms as chills, fever, and cough — and a 36 percent fatality rate. (Photo: Getty Images)
Fear is beginning to take hold in South Korea, as the MERS outbreak weaves its way throughout the country. There have now been four confirmed deaths and 41 people diagnosed with the virus.
What is this new supervirus?
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is the latest deadly viral outbreak to gain ground in certain regions of the world. It is a coronavirus, in the same family as the common cold and SARS, according to Amesh A. Adalja, MD, an infectious disease expert and senior associate at the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh.
“We’ve seen the vast majority of cases in the Middle East,” he tells Yahoo Health. “It’s a respiratory illness with symptoms like chills, fever, and cough, and patients can also develop pneumonia — but it does have around a 36 percent fatality rate.”
MERS may not sound dangerous, but it’s now a growing concern.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly three to four in 10 people diagnosed with the condition have died — although usually these people have had compromised health to start. Adalja says there is no vaccine and no specific treatment for MERS beyond basics like lots of fluids, pain relievers, and rest.
Experts have traced the live MERS virus back to two single-hump camels. (Photo: Getty Images)
The origins of the virus are mysterious.
The first case of MERS was identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It may spread from bats to camels to humans, according to Adalja. Experts have traced the live MERS virus back to two single-hump camels, according to CNN, and as many as three-quarters of camels in Saudi Arabia have tested positive for exposure in the past.
The incubation period can range from two to 14 days but usually is roughly five or six days after exposure. Adalja says that in the beginning stages, MERS looks much like any respiratory infection, but it may grow more serious. Experts think the virus generally spreads through close contact, such as when caring for a person with the syndrome.
“We’ve generally seen large clusters of MERS in hospitals, when people come into contact with an infected person,” Adalja says. “We’re continually at risk of infected travelers coming into the U.S., and we’ve actually had two imported cases of MERS — back before the Ebola epidemic was making news. Every health care provider needs to be asking every patient with respiratory issues questions about recent travel.”
What might be a little strange is the uptick in MERS cases now.
According to NPR, epidemiologists have noted in the past that there is no “sustained transmission” of MERS. Outbreaks don’t really become outbreaks, because MERS generally has only been passed from the sick individual to one other person or no one at all.
But the virus appears to have been spreading more than usual since May, when a businessman contracted it somewhere in the Middle East and brought it to South Korea. He infected 20 people in three hospitals before doctors figured out that he was sick with MERS and not something else.
Why did this man infect so many people?
That’s unclear. It’s possible that the virus has mutated to become more contagious or that this particular person was a rare “superspreader” of MERS. This might mean that he has an inordinately high amount of virus trapped in his lungs, according to virologist Christian Drosten’s assessment in the NPR story. If the latter is the case, you may see MERS buzz die off quickly. But right now, no one knows for sure.
Since the first case of MERS popped up three years ago, the World Health Organization counted 1,179 cases in 25 countries dating up through early June 2015. Of those cases, 442 people died — which is what has disease specialists so concerned.
Do you need to panic? Probably not, says Adalja.
“Right now, we’re seeing a bit of an overreaction in South Korea, but I don’t think that’s necessary here,” he says. “We haven’t seen it really spread and take hold in any communities.”
The CDC hasn’t recommended that travelers cancel any trips to infected areas because of the latest outbreak.
However, it recommends the following practices for preventing MERS. It also suggests that travelers avoid contact with camels.
- Wash hands frequently. If you can’t use soap and water, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth to stop the spread of germs.
- Avoid close contact with anyone who appears sick.
- Make sure you’re up to date with all immunizations, checking in with your physician four to six weeks prior to travel.