Deadly MERS may not become the next SARS pandemic, study finds


Rina Shah

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a coronavirus of the same family as SARS, has been making headlines as the possible source of the next global pandemic.  In 2003, there was an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that began in China and spread throughout the world, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing almost 800.  Its sudden appearance and infection rate created concerns as cases of MERS started to appear in September 2012.  With 90 confirmed cases and 45 deaths, the mortality rate is demonstrably higher than that of SARS.

Responses to the MERS infection and mortality rate have drawn comparisons to SARS.  One study shows that the mortality rate is higher, though milder cases may not be included in the calculation since individuals are unlikely to seek medical attention.  The World Health Organization (WHO) has convened an emergency committee to evaluate the threat of international public health emergency.  The last time an emergency committee was convened was to evaluate the threat of a pandemic from the H1N1 strain of influenza.  In Saudi Arabia, one of the main countries where the virus has been seen, government officials have limited visitor entries and encouraged the use of masks to limit infection.

While prudent, the reality may be that MERS is not as dangerous as SARS, posing little risk of a global pandemic.  A study, published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases, examined 47 cases of MERS infections.  Of these 47 cases, 28 patients died, which was an alarming 60 percent mortality rate.  However, the researchers note that only two of the 47 patients were previously healthy.  The other 45 suffered from one or more chronic conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, renal disease, and cardiac disease.

In contrast, SARS infected healthy and unhealthy people at comparable rates.  Researchers concluded that because this virus seems to affect vulnerable people at a drastically higher rate, it does not have the propensity to become a global pandemic that wildly spreads throughout the world.  It is also easier to identify who is at risk and take appropriate measures to keep them from infection.

Moreover, MERS appears to be less virulent and not easily spread between humans, making it less likely to become a pandemic.  However, it is important to note that viruses can evolve over time, becoming more dangerous and this one has the propensity to spread because of the massive numbers of pilgrims traveling to the Middle East and potentially returning infected.  If minor infections are undetected, they could be spread to vulnerable individuals before public health officials can stop it.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has convened an emergency committee to evaluate the threat of international public health emergency.

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