MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is the latest disease in nature’s little bag of tricks, which could turn into the next pandemic and solve our population issues for us. It is closely related to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), both belonging to the same virus family. But, while SARS appeared in Asia, MERS first popped up in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Since then all cases have been seen either in the Middle East or in people who have travelled to the Middle East. As of June 2014 we have had 697 cases of which 210 people have died. As usual symptoms have been flu-like.
This is quite a high case fatality rate but, like bird flu, the virus has not raced around the world killing a third of the world’s population because it is not easily transferred from person to person, yet.
Any time one of these new diseases pops up it requires quite a bit of detective work to try and determine where it came from and how it works. It will probably come as no surprise that bats are once again implicated, the virus having been found in Egyptian tomb bats, a name guaranteed to generate sympathy with a nervous public.
Intriguingly the virus has also been found in camels, a situation which has some similarities with Hendra virus in Australia. Hendra virus lives happily in bats, infects horses (and kills them) and then spreads from horses to humans. However, as yet, there are no recorded cases of MERS causing disease in camels (although a number of camels have died in the UAE recently of undetermined cause, so this situation may change) and we have only recently seen the first confirmed case of a human catching the disease from a camel. Most of the other cases have been in people who have had very close contact with other sufferers. Where they caught it originally is still open to speculation.
It makes me think that the practice of veterinary medicine may be more dangerous than first thought. While we are all aware of the wonderful things we can catch from our primate neighbours no one really believed there was anything worth catching from our more distant cousins, like horses. Twenty years ago you would not have thought twice about examining a snuffly horse. Two years ago you would not have thought twice about examining a camel.
Australia has the largest feral camel population in the world, but no human cases of MERS. Preliminary testing of 25 camels has failed to find any evidence of MERS, implying that the Middle East camels may have been infected from the tomb bats or that the virus appeared in Middle East camels after the Australian population was established.
The upshot of all this is that we have absolutely no idea where the next fun plague might be coming from. As I get older and more paranoid I am becoming increasingly more nervous about travelling on crowded trains, planes and buses, full of sneezing and coughing people. And I am starting to think that sport is much more enjoyable when viewed from the comfort of my living room than from one of those packed sporting stadiums. I can see the day coming when I refuse to venture outside without my biohazard suit on.
Paranoia aside, most viruses are transferred between us via the things we touch, such as door handles, coffee cups, pens, etc. The best way to prevent this is by washing your hands frequently, with soap and water. To do it properly, sing the Happy Birthday song through twice while you are soaping up your hands. Oh, and don’t kiss bats, camels or any other non-human life forms. And maybe not even the human life forms.
Dr. F. Bunny