Deadly new virus claims more victims, baffles scientists

GENEVA, Switzerland, Wednesday June 26, 2013 – With the deadly new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus continuing its slow but steady spread, concerns are being expressed about next month’s Ramadan, when millions of Muslim pilgrims from all over the world will be converging on Saudi Arabia, the site of what appears to be an ongoing outbreak of the disease.

The death of a Saudi man from the virus on Monday brought the kingdom’s death toll from the SARS-like infection to 34, according to the ministry of health.

Other new cases have also been recorded, especially in Eastern Province where most of the infections have occurred, the ministry added on its website, noting that there have been 66 cases of infection from MERS in the kingdom since the disease surfaced.

One week previously, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that 64 laboratory-confirmed cases of the disease had been recorded worldwide, including 38 deaths.

MERS is a member of the coronavirus family, which includes the pathogen that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a disease that sparked global panic 10 years ago after it jumped to humans from animals in Asia and killed about 800 people.

Like SARS, MERS appears to cause a lung infection, with patients suffering from fever, coughing and breathing difficulties. But it differs in that it also causes rapid kidney failure and appears far more lethal than SARS.

Compared to SARS’ eight percent death rate, the fatality rate for MERS is about 65 percent, though experts concede that they could be missing mild cases that might skew the figures.

While most of the cases have been concentrated in Saudi Arabia, the MERS virus has also spread to neighbouring Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and cases have also been found in France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and Britain.

An international team of doctors who investigated nearly two dozen cases in eastern Saudi Arabia found the new coronavirus has some striking similarities to SARS.

Unlike SARS, however, scientists remain baffled as to the source of MERS.

While SARS was traced to bats before jumping to humans via civet cats, the source of the MERS virus remains a mystery. It is most closely related to a bat virus though some experts suspect people may be getting sick from animals like goats or camels.

Another hypothesis is that infected bats may be contaminating foods like dates, commonly harvested and eaten in Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, doctors around the world have struggled to treat patients infected with the new virus.

“We need more information from other countries to find out what the best treatment is,” said Dr Clemens Wendtner, who treated a MERS patient who later died in Germany. “Our patient got everything possible and it still didn’t help him.”

Other experts are concerned about the worrying signs surrounding MERS.

“As long as it is around, it has every opportunity at the genetic roulette table to turn into something more dangerous,” said Michael Osterholm, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Minnesota.

WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan has previously called MERS the single biggest public health threat and acknowledged officials were “empty-handed” regarding prevention measures.

“We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat,” she said last month in Geneva. Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)