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WHO Says MERS Not Yet International Public Health Emergency, Though Worries Continue

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WHO announced that MERS has not yet become an international public health emergency, but worries continue due to the sharp rise in new cases of this potentially fatal illness during April. Photo courtesy of Reuters

A special committee convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) stated the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) situation has not yet become an international public health emergency. Yet the committee’s concern about MERS, a potentially deadly illness, has significantly increased based in part on a recent sharp rise in new cases during the month of April. Although there is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission, scientists have no real understanding of how the infection, which can progress swiftly and is fatal in about 30 percent of all cases, is spread. WHO noted, during yesterday’s broadcast teleconference, that such information gaps, along with weaknesses in prevention and control plus the possibility of exporting MERS to vulnerable countries contribute to its continuing worries.

As of May 12, 2014, the World Health Organization has reported 538 laboratory confirmed cases of the MERS Coronavirus mostly concentrated in the Arabian Peninsula including 145 deaths worldwide. Countries with imported or travel-associated infections include the UK, France, Tunisia, Italy, Malaysia, and most recently, the U.S. On May 2, 2014, the first confirmed case of MERS was reported in Indiana, where a male health care worker had returned to the country after living and working in Saudi Arabia; a second U.S. case of imported MERS was reported Monday in Florida.

The first reported case of MERS occurred in Saudi Arabia in 2012. A viral respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus, MERS is related to though distinct from severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which first appeared in 2002 and since then killed nearly 800 people globally. Scientists believe MERS may have originated in camels, though it is unclear whether these animals are passing the virus to humans. Infection has frequently been passed from patients to health care workers.

The 13 states, which have reported new cases since December, were included in the WHO teleconference: Egypt, Greece, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Oman, Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, the U.S., and Yemen. Overall, Saudi Arabia has recorded the most cases of MERS, a total of 450, including 118 deaths.

Recommendations for Countries

WHO suggests the following to improve state policies:

  • initiate investigations to better understand risk factors and assess effectiveness of control measures
  • support countries that are particularly vulnerable, especially in sub-Saharan Africa
  • strengthen case identification and management
  • enhance awareness and communication to the general public and health professionals
  • strengthen collaboration and information sharing
  • develop and disseminate advice regarding mass gatherings to prevent further spread
  • share information in a timely manner with WHO
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