Emergency Meeting to Fight Virus Outbreak

MERS outbreak leads to gathering of world health experts to address this new deadly respiratory virus

(RxWiki News) The World Health Organization has initiated an emergency meeting this weekend to combat a mysterious new respiratory illness that may be more deadly than SARS.

Health officials and doctors from around the globe are currently gathered in Cairo to discuss ways for tackling a mysterious new illness that has claimed at least 38 lives, mostly in Saudi Arabia.

Dubbed the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), this coronavirus threatens to be more deadly than the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic of 2003 to 2004, according to an investigative team from Johns Hopkins University and other medical institutions.

"Wash your hands to reduce the spread of illness."

Abdullah Assiri, MD, from the Al-Faisal University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and colleagues published a study on Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine reviewing 23 MERS cases that were reported in Saudi Arabia from April 1 to May 23. A total of 15 of those patients died.

"The 65 percent case fatality rate in this outbreak is of concern," these authors wrote.

The disease appears to be easily spread by person-to-person contact in a hospital setting. Those who have gotten the virus display fever, cough, shortness of breath, and gastrointestinal symptoms, and 20 of the patients had abnormal chest radiographs.

Scientists have said that the MERS virus is related to the SARS virus, which killed about 800 people across the globe a decade ago.

"Our investigation showed some surprising similarities between MERS and SARS," said Trish Perl, MD, senior hospital epidemiologist for Johns Hopkins Medicine, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an author of The New England Journal of Medicine study, in a press release. "Both are very deadly viruses and easily transferred between people, and even between healthcare facilities."

She added that some patients inexplicably appear to transmit the infection faster than others, and that SARS has a similar history.

Rapid detection, isolation and treatment of those infected, combined with swift action by local health officials to quickly monitor the situation and spread of the disease, has largely helped stem the outbreak, according to Dr. Perl.

No cure exists for MERS, but infected people can be supported on mechanical ventilation, if needed, to help them breathe, or offered fluids to lower fever.

Dr. Perl said that early detection makes a difference, as three out of four died among those who were diagnosed while already ill and in hospital, while only three out of 19 died among those who were diagnosed early after admission to a hospital.

A rapid test to detect MERS is the next priority in containing future MERS outbreaks, Dr. Perl said, noting that medical experts also must determine what precautions are most important in preventing its spread, and what screening criteria need to be in place to prevent outbreaks from hospital-to-hospital patient transfers.

With the number of cases and fatalities rising, concern among health officials prompted the emergency World Health Organization (WHO) meeting, which is currently underway this weekend.

WHO officials will consider issuing guidelines for Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, which begins on July 9. During Ramadan, millions of pilgrims are expected to visit Mecca, the Holy City of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that people follow these tips to help prevent respiratory illnesses:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, and help young children do the same. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact, such as kissing, or sharing cups or eating utensils, with sick people.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs.

This study was published online on June 19 in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Review Date: 
June 21, 2013