Global Concern Grows About Deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome

June 03,2013

WASHINGTON — The World Health Organization says [as of June 2] that since September 2012 there have been 53 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection with a new virus called the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome known as MERS-CoV, and 30 of the people infected with the disease have died. All those who have come down with MERS-CoV had a direct or indirect connection to the Middle East, but there is growing concern that the virus could spread quickly and threaten the entire world.

The new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome strain was diagnosed in Saudi Arabia last year. It is a coronavirus, the same viral family that triggered the outbreak of SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, that killed 775 people in 2003. At first, the symptoms can seem like a severe stomach virus accompanied by breathing problems. The illness can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said they do not yet know how the virus is transmitted to people.

"We are assuming that they are being exposed inadvertently to an infected animal. The characteristics are that it doesn't spread well at all from person to person, so it doesn't have what's called sustained transmissibility from you to me, from me to my family, etcetera,'' said Fauci.

Fears of global outbreak

While the number of cases is relatively low so far, Fauci said there is growing concern the deadly virus could mutate and be spread by direct human contact. If that happens, it could spark a global outbreak, something experts fear.

"When you look at a typical influenza virus, for example seasonal flu, where you have millions and millions of people infected, the mortality is less than one percent, a fraction of a percent. The mortality for this if you do the math is 50 cases and you have 30 deaths, so you are talking about a 60 percent mortality already," said Fauci.

The virus has been found in Middle East countries and isolated cases have been exported to Europe by visitors. But the largest cluster of infections is in Saudi Arabia, home to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which draw millions of pilgrims a year. The World Health Organization says it is closely monitoring the situation but is not currently recommending any travel or trade restrictions.