Middle East Respiratory Syndrome – Is Carelessness or Ignorance the Bigger Problem?

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a new threat for humans. Also known as ‘camel flu’, it is a viral respiratory illness first identified in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, where so far it has caused over 280 deaths. Since then it has spread to other countries. As of late June 2015, South Korea was the second most affected country, with 31 fatal casualties. People infected with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), to give it its full name, develop fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Although the symptoms are recognisable, the transmission of the virus has yet to be properly understood.

As a precautionary measure, the Australian Government has been providing updates of information about MERS. No cases of MERS have been detected in Australia so far. However the virus is sufficiently dangerous (there is currently no vaccine) for official warnings to be issued. While cases identified elsewhere appear to have been the result of close contact with people already ill with the virus, the MERS-CoV could mutate and become increasingly transmissible. Besides continuing perplexity about how the virus spreads, carelessness among travellers is being singled out as a risk; it could help the virus to mutate and create a pandemic.

Avoiding visits to camel farms or contact with camels in the Middle East, for any travellers in that region, is a sensible precaution for the time being. Signs of sickness, particularly concerning the symptoms above, should be reported to a doctor immediately. Other recommendations for preventing infection are currently the same as for many other viral infections. Frequent sanitisation, including using soap and water to keep hands clean, forms the basis of protection against MERS. Coughing and sneezing into paper tissues that are immediately disposed of hygienically are other good, common sense measures.