Most of us would have known by now that a deadly viral disease called MERS have affected the South Korea recently. Since it has been on the news daily, there is no doubt that it has created fear and anxiety among us, especially for those who have to travel frequently.
We have been getting a number of enquiries about this disease. Some asked if we have a vaccine against this virus. Some wanted to know if it is safe to travel to South Korea’s neighbouring countries. Some asked if they had been infected with the virus after coming back from Japan, although they are not showing any symptoms at all.
We feel that it is important for everyone to understand the disease and to learn how this virus is transmitted from one to another. This way, instead of spreading fear and uncertainty, every member of the community will learn to take necessary precautions, educate one another and protect themselves and their loved ones.
What is MERS?
MERS stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. It is a disease caused by a novel coronavirus (MERS‐CoV) that was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. This disease primarily affects the respiratory system (lungs and airway).
What are the symptoms of MERS?
MERS symptoms range from no symptoms to severe acute respiratory disease and death. Typically, victim presents with cough, fever and breathlessness. These symptoms can be similar to common cold. Sometimes, one can present with diarrhoea and vomiting. In severe cases, victim can have severe breathing difficulties and may require mechanical breathing support in the hospital.
Who gets it?
MERS can affect people of all ages. However, it causes more severe disease in the elderly, and people with weakened immune system (cancer, diabetes, undergoing chemotherapy etc).
Is it dangerous?
It is. Mortality is high among the report cases. Approximately 36% of reported patients with MERS-CoV have died.
How is it transmitted?
MERS-CoV can be transmitted in 2 ways.
Non-human to human transmission:
Till date, this is still not fully understood by scientists yet. Strains of MERS-CoV identical to human strains have been identified in camels in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Therefore, it is believed that camels can transmit this virus to humans through contact.
Human to human transmission:
MERS-CoV, like other coronaviruses, is thought to spread from an infected person’s respiratory secretions, such as coughing. The exact ways the virus spreads are not currently well understood.
Statistically, in comparison to viruses such as SARS, this virus does not appear to pass easily from person to person. It can be transmitted from one person to another through close contact. The majority of cases occur in healthcare settings, where family members and healthcare workers provide care to an infected patient without appropriate hygiene measures.
So, is it contagious?
Yes, it is, but only to a certain extent. Looking at the statistics and the behaviour of the virus for the past few months, it appears that this virus does not pass from one person to another easily. Human‐to‐human transmission appears to be more efficient in a healthcare setting, especially when infection prevention and control practices are inadequate.
What can I do to prevent this illness?
There is no vaccine available for this virus currently. There is also no cure for this disease. However, there are things we can do to reduce the chances of transmission.
General hygiene measures are important. Anyone who have come in contact with people with cough and cold symptoms should practise regular hand washing. If you are visiting someone in the hospital, make sure you clean your hands properly before and after visiting.
Anyone visiting farms or markets where camels or other animals are present should practise good hygiene measures as well. Wash your hands regularly before and after touching animals. Do avoid contact with sick animals.
Do not consume raw or undercooked animal products because they carry a risk of infection.
People with diabetes, lung disease, kidney disease and impaired immune system should avoid contact with camels, drinking raw camel milk or camel urine, or eating raw or undercooked meat.
– Wash our hands frequently with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, we can use use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
– Cover nose and mouth with a tissue when we cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash. If cover with hands, wash hands immediately after that.
– Avoid touching our eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
– Avoid close contact, such as kissing, or sharing eating utensils, with sick people. Clean frequently touched surfaces and objects, such as doorknobs.
Who is at increased risk for MERS?
People recently in a healthcare facility in the Republic of Korea
Recent traveller from the Arabian Peninsula
Close contact with a sick traveller from the Arabian Peninsula
Close contact with a confirmed case of MERS
No cases of MERS have been detected in Singapore so far. However, the possibility of an imported case here cannot be ruled out given today’s globalised travel patterns
– you develop a fever and symptoms such as cough or breathlessness, within 14 days after travel from a country in or near the Arabian Peninsula
– you have had close contact with someone showing these symptoms who has recently traveled from this area
– you develop these symptoms within 14 days after being in a healthcare facility (as a patient, worker, or visitor) in the Republic of Korea
You should inform the doctor of the areas that you have travelled to.