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New Middle East virus could be more lethal than SARS

Last Updated: Thursday, June 20, 2013 - 15:44

Zee Media Bureau

New Delhi: The new respiratory virus, MERS coronavirus, that originated in the Middle East is mostly spread in hospitals and appears more deadly than SARS, according to a new study.

The virus which infected more than 60 people and killed 38 of them has some striking similarities to SARS but hasn’t spread as quickly as SARS did in 2003.

"To me, this felt a lot like SARS did," said Dr. Trish Perl, a senior hospital epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, who was part of an international team.

Perl said they couldn`t nail down how it was spread in every case - through droplets from sneezing or coughing, or a more indirect route. Some of the hospital patients weren`t close to the infected person, but somehow picked up the virus.

"In the right circumstances, the spread could be explosive," said Perl, while emphasizing that the team only had a snapshot of one MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) cluster in Saudi Arabia.

Cases have continued to trickle in, and there appears to be an ongoing outbreak in Saudi Arabia. MERS cases have also been reported in Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Tunisia. Most have had a direct connection to the Middle East region.

In the Saudi cluster that was investigated, certain patients infected many more people than would be expected, Perl said. One patient who was receiving dialysis treatment spread MERS to seven others, including fellow dialysis patients at the same hospital. During SARS, such patients were known as "superspreaders" and effectively seeded outbreaks in numerous countries.

Perl and colleagues also concluded that symptoms of both diseases are similar, with an initial fever and cough that may last for a few days before pneumonia develops.

But MERS appears far more lethal. Compared to SARS` 8 percent death rate, the fatality rate for MERS in the Saudi outbreak was about 65 percent, though the experts could be missing mild cases that might skew the figures.

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

Other experts said there are enough worrying signs about MERS that it can`t yet be written off, despite the relatively small number of cases it has caused.

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.

(With Agency inputs)

First Published: Thursday, June 20, 2013 - 15:42

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