A Three-in-Ten Death Toll
We’re overdue for a pandemic.
For years now, scientists have been talking about how bad it would be if avian flu or SARS became more easily transmissible. If you could catch these viruses through incidental contact, they would spread rapidly. The death toll would be catastrophic.
Fortunately, both have remained difficult to catch.
But there’s a new virus making headlines now. And it looks like our luck has run out. This virus may be more contagious than the avian flu, and it kills as many as 3 out of every 10 it infects. That’s 30%.
Compare that with the 2.5% mortality rate of the Spanish flu that killed millions early in the last century and you’ll understand my concern.
Nature’s New Weapon of Mass Destruction
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome is the official name of this new virus. You might have heard of it, it’s called MERS for short.
This is a brand new disease that we are still trying to understand. The first cases appeared in Saudi Arabia just two years ago.
In fact, it’s so new, that scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how it is transmitted. In April, a sudden rise in the number of cases in Saudi Arabia spooked officials. Medical researchers were concerned that the disease had adapted to be more easily transmitted between people.
Further research has not shown any genetic mutations in the disease to explain the sudden spike in cases. The official line from the CDC and the World Health Organization is that the disease still spreads only through “close contact,” and is not spreading the way the flu does… yet.
Even so, doctors have diagnosed several cases in which the source cannot yet be identified.
MERS triggers a fever, cough, shortness of breath, and acute respiratory distress. Hospitals in the Middle East confirm that roughly 30% of the people who have tested positive for MERS so far have died as a result of the virus.
For two years, this virus has remained contained in the Middle East. But in the last few weeks, isolated cases have popped up in several European cities.
Three confirmed cases have occurred in the U.S.
MERS is here.
MERS in the United States
Two of the cases of MERS in the U.S. occurred in healthcare workers who traveled from Saudi Arabia to the U.S. In a third case, a man who had close contact with the first documented patient also contracted the virus.
So far, the first two patients have fared well. The third has yet to show symptoms.
In response, the CDC is stepping up testing and tracking for MERS and educating emergency response personnel about how to deal with any widespread outbreaks of the disease.
You should have your own personal plan of defense.
Those most vulnerable to MERS are the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Those living with diabetes, fighting cancer, or dealing with any other chronic or acute condition that depresses the immune system should be very careful to avoid contact with anyone suspected of having MERS. That means, if at all possible:
- Staying out of emergency rooms and hospitals in any areas with a reported MERS outbreak
- Avoiding close contact with family, friends, or colleagues who have recently traveled to the Middle East—the MERS incubation period lasts for up to 14 days, so give these folks a wide berth for two weeks after their return
- Taking extra precautions around anyone showing cold or flu-like symptoms
Whether or not you are the picture of health, I recommend you watch the news about MERS carefully. The three cases that have shown up in the U.S. have been in three different states. This virus could easily come to a city near you.
If a MERS outbreak does occur in your city, take steps to limit your exposure.
- Work from home, if possible
- Avoid public transportation
- Grocery shop during off-hours—in the middle of the week in the morning is a good time
The information about how this virus is transmitted is inconsistent and unclear, so it can’t hurt to take a few extra, sensible precautions.
The MERS virus could very well become our next pandemic. It’s already behaving in unpredictable ways. And medical researchers are clearly alarmed even though they’re trying to act casual to prevent a panic. Stay informed and stay safe.
P.S. – One more note. Like the avian flu, MERS appears to originate in the animal kingdom— either from camels or bats. It’s a good reminder that proper hygiene when dealing with animals is very important to your health. Always wash your hands after handling your pets. And clean up animal waste promptly.