WHO Considers Emergency Status for New Virus

This is MERS-CoV as seen through a microscope. The nodules around the rim, resembling crowns, classify it as a coronavirus.
This is MERS-CoV as seen through a microscope. The nodules around the rim, resembling crowns, classify it as a coronavirus.

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
Washington,
July 8, 2013

The World Health Organization (WHO) is convening a committee that will decide whether the appearance of a new disease in the Middle East has become a “public health emergency of international concern.”

Known as Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), the virus has appeared in several countries of the region, with 80 laboratory-confirmed cases reported to WHO, resulting in 44 deaths as of July 7.

The first cases of the disease appeared in September 2012, according to an account published in a June edition of the Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report, an authoritative medical journal from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Saudi Arabia has reported the most cases, but patients have also been identified in Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. The United Kingdom, Italy, France and Tunisia have reported cases in travelers returning home from the source countries and their close contacts.

The WHO emergency advisory committee to convene in Geneva July 9 and 11 will decide whether MERS-CoV should be considered an international health emergency. If the committee advises WHO’s executive director that an emergency health situation exists, WHO will advise its member nations on responses and precautions.

So far, neither the WHO nor the CDC has issued any warnings against travel to the affected countries. Both agencies, however, have spread an alert among health care providers about the signs of the disease, especially if recent travelers show up with respiratory symptoms.

Most people who’ve been diagnosed so far are adult males. All patients had respiratory symptoms during their illness, and in the majority of cases those symptoms became severe and required hospitalization. Some patients have had gastrointestinal symptoms at the same time, such as stomach cramping and diarrhea.

CDC has devoted a special Web page to centralizing information on MERS-CoV and has produced advisories on how medical practitioners should respond to patients appearing with fever, cough and shortness of breath.

“CDC is working with partners to better understand the risks of this virus, including the source, how it spreads, and how infections might be prevented,” the agency website reports. “CDC has provided information for travelers and is working with health departments, hospitals, and other partners to prepare for possible cases in the United States.”

MERS-CoV has never been seen before, but as a coronavirus, it is related to SARS, an illness that caused an international health panic in 2003. Severe acute respiratory syndrome is a severe form of pneumonia that was first identified by the medical profession in a man who had traveled from China to several other countries in Southeast Asia. In a matter of weeks, travelers had spread the disease through Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa, and North and South America.

The disease passed easily from person to person, and in months 8,200 cases had appeared, resulting in about 750 deaths. Quarantine of patients and testing of airline passengers coming from infected areas helped quell the rapid spread of the 2003 outbreak.

The SARS outbreak “changed the way that the world responds to infectious diseases during a time of widespread international travel,” according to an account of the outbreak from the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Cases of the new disease were seen in China as early as 2002, but authorities did not inform WHO so that other countries might be on the lookout for the illness.

Today, health authorities in the member nations of the WHO have developed cooperative protocols on joint action to contain diseases that threaten to become pandemic.

In keeping with that enhanced cooperation among health authorities, the CDC has developed tests to allow practitioners to identify MERS-CoV and made those widely available. CDC has also been involved in international public health investigations of MERS cases in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. CDC reports that it “continues to provide advice and laboratory diagnostic support to countries in the Arabian Peninsula and surrounding region.”