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Middle East and North Africa

SARS-like virus emerges in Saudi Arabia, spreads internationally

A new virus known as MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome, has spread from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Tunisia, and even Italy, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, leading to a death rate of 40 from 77 cases as of July 8. This high death rate, as well as its spread from the Persian Gulf region to northern Africa and Europe, has led to many claims that it may be the next global pandemic.

In an effort to draw narrative parallels with previous global pandemics, some in the Western media have colloquially referred to MERS as the “Saudi SARS.” This is a reference to severe acute respiratory syndrome, the coronavirus that spread from China to the rest of the world in 2003, and which had a death toll of 775. As both MERS and SARS are coronaviruses (a reference to the shape and coating of the virus), they share similar influenza-like and pneumonia-like symptoms, with an additional MERS symptom being renal failure.

However, Arnaud Fontanet, a researcher at the Emerging Diseases Epidemic Unit at the Pasteur Institute in France, who has extensively studied MERS, warns at oversimplifying the similarities between the two viruses. Because they use different receptors to infect cells, MERS has a lower basic reproduction number than SARS, meaning it is less transmittable and will likely not reach SARS’s pandemic status.

Says Fontanet, “SARS’s adaption to humans took just several months, whereas MERS has already been circulating more than a year in human populations without mutating into a pandemic form.” The SARS pandemic lasted for 8 months, from November 2002 to July 2003, while MERS was identified all the way back in September 2012, making it an outbreak that has lasted two months longer, but only caused about 5 percent as many fatalities.

Others are not as cavalier about the potential impact of MERS on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, and the rest of the world. The World Health Organization has set up an emergency committee of medical experts to analyze the virus and plan for a possible pandemic-level outbreak. Says Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s top influenza expert, “We want to make sure we can move as quickly as possible if we need to,” or “if in the future we do see some kind of explosion or if there is some big outbreak.”

Particularly troublesome to these experts is the fact that MERS may sometimes act as a superspreader, infecting health care workers who are normally at very low danger for infection because of heavy precautions and sterile environments.

Some within Saudi Arabia, which in addition to being the place of origin for MERS, is the country that has thus far suffered the most MERS fatalities, worry that with the large influx of people who will be arriving in July for the Umrah pilgrimage for Ramadan, the disease will be transmitted faster, and to even more countries once the pilgrims return home.

To attempt to counteract this increased potential for a pandemic, the Saudi Ministry of Health has issued fewer visas to potential pilgrims this year, and have also set up medical surveillance stations at every point of entry into the kingdom, so that tourists can be checked for MERS symptoms upon entering and leaving Saudi Arabia.

By Laura Gates

Source: Time, Huffington Post, NBC, New England Journal of Medicine, Voice of America

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