MERS Virus Not Epidemic
July 26, 2013

Deadly MERS Virus Not Expected To Reach Epidemic Scale, Say Researchers

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Those making plans to travel to the Middle East can breathe easy, as the deadly MERS virus is not expected to break out on an epidemic scale, according to new research from a group of Saudi and British scientists.

The international team recently published a report in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases that examined 47 cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS. In the most comprehensive analysis yet, the scientists found major differences with the SARS virus, which caused an epidemic in 2002, and concluded many of these differences indicate MERS will stay fairly contained.

"Despite sharing some clinical similarities with SARS, there are also some important differences," Ziad Memish, lead author and Saudi Deputy Minister for Public Health, told BBC News. "In contrast to SARS, which was much more infectious especially in healthcare settings and affected the healthier and the younger age group, MERS appears to be more deadly, with 60 percent of patients with co-existing chronic illnesses dying, compared with the 1 percent toll of SARS."

To reach their conclusion, the scientists examined clinical records, laboratory results and demographic data. They found older men and patients with pre-existing conditions tended to fall victim to the deadly disease.

"Although this high mortality rate with MERS is probably spurious due to the fact that we are only picking up severe cases and missing a significant number of milder or asymptomatic cases," Memish said, "so far there is little to indicate that MERS will follow a similar path to SARS."

Like SARS, MERS patients have a wide range of symptoms, including fever, chills, cough, difficulty breathing, muscle pain and pneumonia. Some patients have also experienced diarrhea and vomiting.

The virus emerged around the Persian Gulf last year and spread to Germany, France, Italy, Tunisia and the UK. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 90 confirmed cases have resulted in 45 deaths worldwide, giving the virus a 50 percent kill rate.

However, the state of heightened alarm around MERS appears to be waning as the WHO issued a statement on Thursday stating pilgrims going to the annual haj in Saudi Arabia only faced a "very low" threat of infection.

An earlier study of the disease discovered it binds to receptors commonly found in the lungs and lower respiratory tract. Because these receptors are not in the nose, throat and upper respiratory tract, some doctors believe MERS is not capable of spreading easily from person to person. Another study from French researchers released last month said MERS had yet to reach pandemic potential and will likely die out.

Despite the toned down rhetoric, the study emphasized there is still much that is not yet known about the deadly virus.

"Reducing the rate of introduction of MERS coronavirus into human beings is unpredictable because the source of the virus is not yet known," the study author wrote. "We are searching vigorously for the source."

The virus still has a long way to go to match the epidemic proportions of SARS, which ultimately killed over 770 people.