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MERS Virus Could Be Treated With Existing Drugs

MERS Virus

Scientists are turning to robotic help to find treatments for the potentially fatal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus.


A second case of MERS was confirmed in the United States Monday. The first U.S. case was reported in Indiana earlier this month. The patient, an American health care provider working in Saudi Arabia who was in Indiana to visit family, was released from the hospital last Friday. The second case was reported in Florida; that patient traveled from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to London on May 1, from London to Boston, Boston to Atlanta, and then Atlanta to Orlando.

The MERS virus is from the same family as the common cold and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which eventually caused 8,273 cases and 775 deaths in southern China between November 2002 and July 2003. Worldwide, there have been 571 confirmed cases of MERS, with 171 reported deaths since 2012.

It's "very" hard to get infected with MERS

"For some perspective, about 500 times more people die from seasonal influenza in the US in one year than have died ever from a MERS infection in the world," said Ken Stedman, a biology professor from Portland State University. "That being said, if you are infected with MERS it can be quite dangerous, but it is very hard to get infected," Stedman wrote to EmaxHealth today.

Symptoms of MERS

Symptoms of MERS include coughing, shortness of breath and fever. In severe cases, development of pneumonia and kidney failure may occur.

Where did MERS come from and how does it spread?

Although it is unclear exactly where MERS came from, it is believed that the virus came from an animal source, particularly camels. Some of the early victims worked with camels, ate camel meat, or drank camel milk. However, most patients have not had contact with camels, leaving officials to wonder how the virus is transmitted to humans. When we asked professor Steadman how MERS spreads, his reply was that it spreads "poorly via the aerosol route as far as we cal tell."

“Right now we don’t have a good handle on what is the route for the virus to go from somebody who is infected to somebody who is not infected,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the assistant director-general for health security at the World Health Organization (WHO).

How can MERS be prevented from spreading?

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According to Dr. Fukuda, good hygiene may be the best bet to prevent the virus from spreading. “Wearing gloves at the right time, wearing masks at the right time... washing your hands,” he said. “We don’t think there are esoteric methods needed to control this infection.” Similar advice is given by professor Steadman, who suggests common hygienic tips such as covering your mouth when sneezing, washing your hands and avoiding people who are sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also advise people to wash their hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, to cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough, and to avoid touching the eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands. The CDC also advises to avoid close contact with sick people.

MERS treatment options

While there is no treatment for MERS just yet, scientists are exploring existing drugs to fight the virus. According to the Voice of America, cancer drugs are just one of the options being considered, although it is unclear how it would stop the virus. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve any new drugs, but the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) is backing efforts to look for drugs that are already have FDA approval. With the help of robots, hundreds of existing drugs can be screened at a time.

“You can do a lot of quick, test-tube, petri-dish screens to see if, hey, does this have any efficacy or not,” said immunologist Erik Stemmy, who oversees MERS research grants for NIAID. “That’s what’s really moving this field forward.”

It is also possible that dietary changes may help fight the virus for people who already have a respiratory illness.

“Someone who is ill already with a respiratory virus may consider complex carbohydrate foods eating small meals to prevent bloating and reducing sodium intake to reduce swelling," said Denise Reynolds, a Registered Dietitian reporting on nutrition for EmaxHealth.

Complex carbohydrate foods include fruits and vegetables such as potatoes, beans, carrots, grapefruit, apples, and tomatoes. Whole grains and whole grain breads and pastas are also high in complex carbohydrates, as are nuts, seeds, and legumes such as chick peas, lentils, and kidney beans.

There are also several foods that can boost the immune system, such as yogurt, garlic, mushrooms, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes. Having a strong immune system will help the body fend off illnesses.


Expert interview: Surveillance is key for stopping MERS and other pandemics