The deadly MERS respiratory virus was first identified in Saudi Arabia two years ago, and given the name Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
The infection is a coronavirus from the same family as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and the common cold. It’s less contagious than the others but is easily carried as Matthew Freiman, Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine describes: “This virus can get on a plane and travel around the world wherever it wants, and it just has to find the right person that gets infected, doesn’t know it and lands anywhere around the world and brings it with them.”
Saudi Arabia has been the worst affected country with more than 100 people killed by the virus. Neighboring countries are also on high alert.
MERS has travelled to other countries, carried by people who became infected in the Middle East. There have been cases in France, the UK and Egypt.Two cases identified in the US also contracted the infection in Saudi Arabia.
There is no preventive treatment against MERS so stopping the disease from being transmitted is the only way to contain it
“Our focus for this kind of virus is to put a person in a special room to protect workers and to clean the environment regularly and those three conditions don’t exist everywhere in the world and that’s how some of these times we do see a lot of spread in healthcare facilities,” said Dr Anne Schuchat from the United States Public Health Service.
A possible vaccine is still in the early stages and being tested on animals. Freiman described their work: “We do know that this vaccine produces neutralizing antibodies in animals and we are now forwarding through to do animal studies on both mouse and non-human primate studies to look for the ability of the vaccine to work in those animals before we get to humans.”
Although many patients recently identified in Saudi Arabia were infected in hospitals, The World Health Organisation WHO recommends avoiding contact with camels which as well as bats which are believed to be carriers of the virus.