Fear the Camel:Why a deadly new virus will be so hard to stop.

Thursday, May 8, 2014
By Paul Martin

By Helen Branswell
MAY 7 2014

Infectious disease experts have been worriedly watching a new disease for more than a year and a half now, but it’s a fair bet that most people still haven’t twigged to the existence of the world’s latest infectious threat: MERS.

That may be changing, with new infections popping up recently in Malaysia, Greece, the Philippines, and Egypt. And late last week, the United States became the 16th country to detect a case of MERS, in an American health care worker who has been living and working in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The acronym is short for Middle East respiratory syndrome. The disease is caused by a cousin of SARS, the coronavirus that killed roughly 900 people and crippled hospital systems in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Canada in 2003, knocking billions of dollars out of the world’s economy in the process. Canada’s outbreak occurred in Toronto, where I live; I covered SARS from its alarming beginning through its exhausting end. The information coming out of Saudi Arabia is limited, and it’s hard to be sure from a distance, but there appear to be many similarities between how the MERS outbreak is playing out in Saudi hospitals and what happened in Toronto during SARS. We are lucky that to this point MERS doesn’t seem to spread as easily as SARS did, though SARS didn’t spread particularly well either, and it still caused major trouble.

As the name suggests, this new disease has been mostly found in the Middle East, in countries such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and most especially Saudi Arabia, which has reported 431 cases and 117 deaths, about 80 percent of known infections. All cases to date link back to seven countries in the Middle East.

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