Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus: the latest lethal germ

In 2003 a brand new virus named severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) caused an outbreak of serious illness in Asia. The outbreak sickened over 8,000 people and killed over 700. Many of the infected were healthcare workers.

In February of last year a similar but distinct virus was identified in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). Since that time about 200 people have been sickened by MERS, all linked to six countries in or near the Arabian Peninsula. The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed 180 cases (143 in Saudi Arabia) and 77 deaths (59 in Saudi Arabia). There have been no cases thus far in the U.S. No specific treatment or vaccine exists for MERS-CoV.

The current issue of Annals of Internal Medicine published ” target=”_blank”>Centers for Disease Control (CDC) nor the WHO recommends that anyone change their travel plans because of MERS. For now, it seems geographically quite localized and fairly difficult to catch. But no one can say what the future holds, and whether a few mutations from now MERS will be coming to an airport near you. If that happens, the rapid development of a vaccine will be critical.

The small lesson is that MERS is an emerging pathogen that deserves our attention, and that what is simmering on the other side of the globe this year can be a global pandemic next year. The big lesson is that nature is a mixed bag. Nature brings us both rainbows and tsunamis, both my 10 year-old daughter’s amazing eyes and the norovirus that is keeping her home from school today. And every now and then Mother Nature invents brand new ways to kill some of us.

Learn more:

” target=”_blank”>A Novel Coronavirus Called “MERS-CoV” in the Arabian Peninsula (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel recommendations)
” target=”_blank”>New MERS death raises Saudi toll to 59 (AFP)
” target=”_blank”>Medusa's Ugly Head Again: From SARS to MERS-CoV (Annals of Internal Medicine editorial, subscription required)

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