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Middle East coronavirus, is there reason to be alarmed?

In just a few months, concern around a new virus in the Middle East, a coronavirus known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) – has escalated quickly, sparking fears among some public health experts that the virus may pose a substantial threat to the entire world.

Though the name Middle East Respiratory Syndrome may sound harmless – perhaps even bland – the virus represents a very serious potential health problem.

MERS stems from the coronavirus family of respiratory illnesses, a group of conditions responsible for ailments ranging from a common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Currently, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) has caused more than 30 deaths and has affected more than 50 people.

First seen in humans last August, MERS originated in the Middle East, but its exact origin is unknown. The disease has been confirmed in people in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, and additional cases have occurred in the UK, Germany, France, Tunisia and Italy. In each instance the initial case in these countries were exposed to the virus in one of the Middle East countries. Also, subsequent cases then occurred in these other countries as a result of exposure to the initial.

Until lately, there were only a few cases of the virus among people who had not traveled to and in the Middle East. That may have changed.

Currently, evidence suggests MERS may incubate in patients for 9 to 12 days, longer than the 1-9 days doctors previously believed, showing close contact may be a risk factor for spreading MERS.

This timeframe may mean patients who are suspected of having MERS may ultimately need to be quarantined or isolated for longer periods to confirm that they are not infected with the virus.

Should the global population be alarmed?

“With the continued case occurrence of MERS in the Middle East, particularly in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the potential for a global outbreak of MERS only grows. This has all the hallmarks of the 2003 SARS global outbreak,” said Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H., director of CIDRAP and professor at the School of Public Health. “The current situation as it stands isn’t alarming. It’s not what’s happening now, it’s what could happen.”

In 2003 the SARS virus exploded seemingly overnight. Almost all cases of the epidemic have since been traced back to the Metropole hotel in China.

Because the current coronavirus source of infection isn’t known, nor how it is being transferred, Osterholm said it’s hard to say if and when the virus will follow a similar path.

“For now, people should be mindful of animal contact or with sick humans when traveling to the Middle East,” said Osterholm. “That being said, any person showing symptoms 3 to 4 days after contact with animals or people recently in the Middle East should seek medical attention.”

For updates on the coronavirus, visit the World Health Organization (WHO).

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