The people in healthcare who sit up nights worrying about potentially world-shattering death plagues are monitoring Middle East Respiratory System, known as "MERS." It’s already infected more than 600 people worldwide, killing roughly 30% of its victims.
To date, it’s been a problem largely confined to the Middle East. But it’s beginning to spread, showing up in three cases in Florida and Indiana, all of them recent travelers to the Middle East. Travel-associated infections have also shown up in the UK, France, Italy, Turkey, Greece, the Netherlands, and a few other countries. Think of the opening credits of the classic Dawn of the Dead film, which showed how a virus exponentially spreads around the world, and you’ll understand what can happen.
MERS warning signs are going up at 22 US airports, at the request of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They assure us there’s nothing to worry about, that it’s all a precaution. They also deny the crash landing at Roswell.
You can become infected from contact with infected animals, meat, or other animal products, such as milk.
So far, the disease has been mostly transmitted by random close contact — people who provide patient care, including healthcare workers or family members, or who visited a place where a patient was ill. You can also become infected from contact with infected animals, meat, or other animal products, such as milk. The MERS virus lies deep in the respiratory tract, so it is harder to transmit than more common viruses that grow in the nose, and can be sprayed from a sneeze or cough.
But the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca begins in early October, with more than a million people traveling to Jeddah, the outbreak’s Ground Zero. Having that many people in close contact has the potential to exponentially spread MERS. Viruses can quickly evolve, and once they mutate, can become more contagious.
If you get MERS, you will develop an acute respiratory illness. Fever, cough, and shortness of breath are the symptoms. In someone who is already weak (the elderly, children, those with compromised immune systems), MERS can be a fatal bullet.
The Cure Isn't Certain
Right now, there is no vaccine against MERS to prevent its spread and treat the infected. Scientists believe it’s feasible to create one, as finding an attack point on a virus’s surface is something science has mastered.
But there’s no market for a drug that helps the relatively small level of people infected with MERS, and vaccine development takes six years of testing to insure its safety and effectiveness. There’s also the small matter of it costing half a billion dollars. Without a major market, that’s a bad investment for research scientists and pharmaceutical companies. Companies remember that a similar disease, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), went away before there was a major outbreak. Would you want to spend a huge amount of money on something that may go away before it hits the market?
So, we’re left with this: if you’re traveling to the Middle East, avoid healthcare settings. Wash your hands with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds, or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Avoid close contact with sick people, and for God’s sake don’t hang out around camels, which contain the virus — and may be the reason for its migration to humans.
One more thing: if you’re going on the Hajj to Jeddah this fall, pray like hell that things don’t get worse.