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MERS declared far more dangerous than SARS; World Health Organization calls emergency meeting

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
June 21st, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The World Health Organization has convened an emergency meeting in order to devise ways of battling the mysterious MERS virus, now described as the single biggest worldwide public health threat. Officials fear a pandemic far more deadly than SARS, after MERS has claimed 38 lives, mostly in Saudi Arabia.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Eighty officials and doctors gathered in Cairo to examine ways of tackling Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. The coronavirus is of particular concern as the annual Muslim pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia to observe Mecca are to begin shortly.

Over the next three days, the WHO will look at developing guidelines for Ramadan. In October, more than two million people are expected to attend the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

"Everyone is very aware of the fact that Ramadan begins next month and that there will be a large, large movement of people in a small crowded spaces," Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the WHO said. "So the more we know about this virus before that starts the better."

There are also concerns that tourists could bring the virus back to their home countries. It appears to have an incubation period of up to 12 days and a fatality rate of 60 percent. ERS has been reported in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and Jordan. Most were patients transferred home from the Middle East for treatment or people who had travelled to the region and became ill after they returned.

"You don't want to have this," Dr. Jon Bible, a clinical scientist, who treated one of the three British cases last year, says. Sufferers "are very close to death at all times. They are in respiratory distress at all times; it's like a very serious pneumonia." One of his patients patient at St. Thomas's Hospital survived after several months of artificial respiration and even now has breathing difficulties.

MERS has not yet mutated so as to gain the ability to jump easily from person to person. "We have been lucky it hasn't started to spread in any sustainable way between humans. We still have time, but we have to use that time to act," Hartl says.

An investigation of nearly two dozen cases in eastern Saudi Arabia revealed the virus has some striking similarities to SARS, which killed 800 people around the world as it spread a global health panic in 2003. Scientists remain baffled about the source of the new virus, which was first reported in April of last year.

The symptoms of both are similar, with an initial fever and cough that may last for a few days before overpowering pneumonia develops.

"To me, this felt a lot like SARS did," Trish Perl, a senior hospital epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine says. Perl said they pinpoint how it was spread in every case; through droplets from sneezing or coughing, or a more indirect route.

The team was alarmed to find MERS only spread within hospitals, even though some hospital patients were not close to the infected person. "In the right circumstances, the spread could be explosive," said Dr. Perl.

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