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Middle East on alert for pandemic

MERS-coronavirus could spread and cause pandemic

MERS-coronavirus has already spread to countries through infected travelers

June 11, 2013 2:21 by

The World Health Organisation has, once again, urged health workers to be on the alert for the deadly MERS-coronavirus (frequently referred to as the SARS-like virus) as it has the potential to cause a world-wide pandemic.

The ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome‘ first emerged last year in Saudi Arabia and has, so far, reportedly infected 55 people – with 40 cases being in the kingdom – and caused the death of 31. The source of the virus remains unknown, but 75 per cent of the cases in KSA have affected men, and most have occurred in people with one or more major chronic conditions.

According to Reuters, the United Nations agency, which issued new, long-awaited guidance to countries on influenza pandemics, said the world was also in the same “alert phase” for two human strains of bird flu – H5N1, which emerged a decade ago, and H7N9, first detected in China in March.

In its interim guidance, expected to be completed later this year, many of its lessons are similar to the 2009-2010 pandemic of the H1N1 swine flu – which caused an estimated 200,000 deaths around the world.

“We are trying to find out as much as we can and we are concerned about these (three) viruses,” Andrew Harper, WHO special adviser for health security and environment, told a news briefing on its new scale for pandemic risk. “International concern about these infections is high.”

Since the discovery of the respiratory virus, there have been several incidents where it the disease was able to spread from country to country through infected travellers, and so the WHO said it is possible for the coronavirus to circle the globe. Travellers have carried the virus to Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Infected people have also been found in Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.

The WHO said that while the overall number of reported cases may be limited, the virus “causes death in approximately 60 per cent of patients” and that all countries in the Middle East need to urgently intensify disease surveillance.

The WHO has not yet drawn up advice for travellers ahead of the annual Haj pilgrimage in October, which draws millions to Saudi Arabia. According to Scientific American Magazine, WHO is currently trying to gather a set of guidelines to help pilgrims avoid becoming infected. Meanwhile, the kingdom has only released the barest of details that scientists (or health officials) could use to try and prevent the virus from spreading.

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