MERS The Next Pandemic?

We survived Swine 09. We struggled through Bird flu in 2012. Now people around the world appear to be bracing themselves for a mysterious new disease known as (MERS) Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. MERS is a virus similar to SARS that that typical flu like symptoms like a cough or fever, but can also have more severe outcomes like respiratory infections or kidney failure.

The question many people are asking is will it (MERS) spread or will it not?

According to science (Breban, Riou and Fontanet, 2013) the risk of this virus becoming a worldwide pandemic are pretty low. They say this because of MERS’ R0 value. Any R0 value greater than 1 (an infected person of average infects 1 other individual while they are contagious) has the potential to turn into an epidemic. Measles which are highly contagious have an R0 value of 11-18. MERS has been shown to have an R0 value of around 0.60-0.69. Dr. Romulus Breban and his team established this value for MERS after testing hundreds of samples of patients obtained through WHO.

So we can all breathe a sigh of relief and walk away now right? Not so fast.

The R0 value of diseases can change. Either through virus mutation or increased exposure to unaffected individuals. MERS has already been observed in areas outside the Middle East such as the UK and France. Although they did not appear to have spread further from there, the fact that these virus made it out of their infection zone is a cause for worry.

Another thing that scientists are looking into is a potential animal host of MERS. It is believed that like bird or swine flu, humans originally contracted MERS from an animal that we have some interaction with. So far we don’t know what that host may be, although goats, camels and bats are suspected. By tracking down which animal the virus comes from it will assist in preventing the virus from spreading further to other human populations. Containment is key here.

In the end I believe that sealing the country off from the rest of the world as some people have suggested is a bit over the top. However I don’t think I’ll be travelling to Saudi Arabia anytime soon either.

One final remark. I consider it a poor naming practice to name a disease after a place. For one thing it is inherently discriminatory against the people in that location. Also MERS as I have mentioned, most likely came from an animal host. When we do find out which animal it came from it will make sense to name it (at least casually) after the animal in question, e.g. like bird or swine flu. That way everyone knows which animal to avoid if they don’t want to become sick. Of course naming systems being what they are I can see why this is probably not going to happen.

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