Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) Outbreak Ongoing in Asia

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An ongoing disease outbreak in Asia has caught the attention of the international health community. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a viral disease that attacks the lungs and breathing tubes of those infected. According the U.S. Centre for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 3 to 4 out of 10 infected persons have succumbed to death from the disease. Initial cases of MERS were found in Jordan in April 2012, however the first diagnosis came from Saudi Arabia in September 2012. While the origins of MERS remains unknown, experts have deduced a likely animal origin, as the disease has been found in camels across several regions in the Arabian Peninsula.

The virus is spread from contact with an infected person, often through the emissions of the respiratory system; however, the CDC does warn that exact means of infection are not conclusive. Symptoms include coughing, fever, and shortness of breath. Since its discovery, approximately 1334 people have been diagnosed with MERS while an estimated 471 have died.

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The Republic of Korea is currently experiencing the most significant outbreak with the latest reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicating 166 cases and 24 deaths. Nevertheless, reports of new cases are declining, owing partly to the thousands of individuals currently being monitored by healthcare workers. Meanwhile, Thailand has confirmed its first case of MERS to the WHO. The infected person has been identified as an elderly man who traveled to Thailand from Oman in order to seek medical treatment. While this news may sound alarming, the case is currently contained as he and his family have been placed in isolation while the patient is being treated. There have been other stray cases, including a German national who contracted MERS while traveling from the United Arab Emirates, and one other known infection in China.

The International Health Regulation’s (IHR) Emergency Committee regarding MERS-CoV, which has been meeting periodically since July 2013, recently convened its ninth session on June 17, 2015. According to the committee, the current MERS outbreak is linked to the following factors: lack of knowledge about MERS; absence of prevention and control measures; protracted contact with infected persons in emergency rooms; infected persons visiting multiple hospitals; and second-hand spreading from maintaining close contact with an infected friend or relative. While the current Asian outbreak of MERS is alarming, the IHR Emergency Committee has not yet declared it an international public health emergency, instead proclaiming it a “wakeup call.”

The WHO implores all Member States to heighten surveillance measures to better locate any “unusual patterns” and monitor cases of respiratory infection, particularly among those travelling from infected regions.