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MERS A 'Tremendous Concern,' Says Virologist Rachel Roper

MERS virus a tremendous concern

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced Wednesday that although the potentially fatal virus MERS is very serious, it isn’t an emergency yet.

"Calling a global emergency in a world which has a lot of issues is a major act," said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, an assistant director-general of WHO. "You have to have really solid evidence to say this is a global emergency."

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a coronavirus, which are common viruses that most people will get at some point in their lifetime. Coronoaviruses are named for the crown-like spikes on their surface and were first discovered in the mid-1960s. MERS was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Since then, there have been lab-confirmed cases of MERS in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait, and Oman. There have also been travel-associated cases in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Tunisia, France, Malaysia, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Coronaviruses like MERS infect humans and animals although, according to the CDC, they usually infect only one animal species or a small number of closely related species. Human infections usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, or they may cause lower-respiratory tract illnesses such as pneumonia.

There have been 571 confirmed cases of MERS and 171 deaths since 2012, with the virus spreading rapidly since March.

Rachel Roper, Ph.D., a virologist at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, was involved in the sequencing and analysis of the first SARS genome. She was also involved in the development of vaccines against SARS. Although WHO says the virus isn’t an emergency, Roper said MERS is a cause of great concern due to its high death rate of about 30 percent.

How dangerous is MERS?

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MERS is a tremendous concern because it has a very high case fatality rate. Currently it does not spread easily between humans, but the virus could mutate so that it can spread human-to-human. This is the biggest threat. With global travel it can be anywhere. It's already in 18 countries. Viruses are evolving all the time. MERS is a new virus, so we don't have any vaccine or drugs to treat it.

How does it spread?

It is jumping form animals (camels, bats) to humans and human-to-human in close contact. Health care workers catch it from patients. Family members can get it from a household contact. It is possible to spread a virus before the person has symptoms. It is possible to acquire the infection by sitting on a plane next to an infected person; that's why they are tracking passengers from the plane that brought infected people to the US.

We know that there are no FDA-approved drugs. Are there any simple steps the public can take to avoid MERS or protect themselves from it?

Do not have close contact with someone who has respiratory symptoms and has had any contact with a known case. Hand washing is always a good practice because it washes all types of viruses and bacteria off of the hands so we will not get the pathogens in our eyes, nose, or mouth when touching the face. Face masks are likely to protect from airborne droplets and virus particles.

Could immune-system-boosting food help to avoid MERS?

The human immune system has evolved a balance over millennia. If there is too much of an immune response, it can result in autoimmunity like lupus, type 1 diabetes, or MS, so we do not benefit from boosting our immune system overall. If there is not enough of an immune response, we fall prey to many pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites). The balance is very important, so trying to shift it with “immune boosting” foods is a bad idea. Plus there really are no "immune boosting" foods other than having a healthy well balanced diet for overall health.

Roper added, “Viruses are always evolving, so we need constant surveillance by government health agencies to identify new pathogens. We need government support for rapid research into evolving emerging pathogens to protect public health. This is a great use of our tax dollars!”