MERS coronavirus has potential to cause pandemic - WHO

Mon Jun 10, 2013 1:57pm EDT

* MERS coronavirus has potential to spread globally, WHO says

* U.N. health agency issues new guidance on pandemic risks

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, June 10 (Reuters) - The World Health Organisation on Monday urged health workers around the world to be on the alert for symptoms of the deadly Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS), which has the potential to circle the globe and cause a pandemic.

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.

"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.

The interim guidance, to be finalised later this year, incorporates lessons from the 2009/2010 pandemic of H1N1 swine flu, which caused an estimated 200,000 deaths, roughly in line with annual seasonal flu.

Having been adjusted to include the notion of severity when assessing risk, the new scale has just four phases against six previously and is intended to give countries more flexibility in judging local risks.

"International concern about these infections is high, because it is possible for this virus to move around the world. There have been now several examples where the virus has moved from one country to another through travellers," the WHO said of MERS, which causes coughing, fever and pneumonia.

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.

"Consequently, all countries in the world need to ensure that their healthcare workers are aware of the virus and the disease it can cause and that, when unexplained cases of pneumonia are identified, MERS-CoV should be considered."

MERS-coronavirus, a distant relative of SARS that emerged in Saudi Arabia last year, has been confirmed in 55 people worldwide, killing 31 of them. Forty cases occurred in Saudi Arabia, many in a hospital in the eastern province of al-Ahsa.

"The overall number of cases is limited but the virus causes death in about 60 percent of patients," the WHO said, reporting on a week-long mission of international experts to Saudi Arabia that ended on Sunday.

"So far, about 75 percent of the cases in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been in men and most have occurred in people with one or more major chronic conditions."

But the source of the MERS virus remained unknown, it said.

Clusters of cases have occurred in families and health facilities, indicating a limited capacity to spread among people in close contact with an infected person, it said.

All countries in the Middle East should urgently intensify disease surveillance to detect any MERS infections, it said.

The WHO has not yet drawn up advice for travellers ahead of the annual haj pilgrimage in October, which draws millions of Muslims to Saudi Arabia. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Mike Collett-White)

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Comments (3)
scohol wrote:
Who would have thought, Armageddon coming from a virus instead of the anti-christ!

Jun 10, 2013 3:21pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
DaveInKC wrote:
The problem is there are too many of us. The solution will be one of these bugs.

Jun 10, 2013 3:24pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Doras wrote:
I’m not following. If it has limited ability to spread between people, and it’s actually pretty clear that it has trouble spreading between people and only very susceptible people are likely to catch it, how does it have the potential to give rise to a major pandemic?

If there’s an actual good reason to think that please deign to share it with us.

Meanwhile, what specific antibody tests have you given to family members of infected people, especially those who cared for them, to conclude that alot more people didn’t catch the virus but not get very sick? Huh? I mean, just to begin with, the level of immunity of female caregivers in Arabia is ridiculous. I mean, I know their hard lives must have toughened them, but this is ridiculous.

Jun 11, 2013 7:30pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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