MERS Awareness and Self-Protection – Six Degrees

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The 1990 play “Six Degrees of Separation” popularized a theory first espoused in 1929 by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy; that the modern world was “shrinking” due to the ever-increasing connectedness of human beings. Today, that nearly century old concept is proving itself in the worlds of travel, commerce and communicable disease.  mers 1

The widespread alarm over Ebola diverted the public’s attention away from another emerging and highly dangerous disease, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). MERS is an illness caused by the coronavirus Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) that emerged in the Arabian Peninsula, having been first identified in 2012. MERS is fatal in 3-4 of 10 cases. While most cases of MERS were confined to the Middle East, three people in the United States were diagnosed as having the disease. These cases occurred in Indiana and Texas and had a common source, a man who had traveled in the Middle East.

MERS has now emerged in the Far East, specifically in South Korea and in Guangdong province, China. Ironically, Guangdong was the source of SARS – a deadly virus from the same family as MERS – in 2003. Was one to map the global flow of business from the financial centers of the Gulf States to Asian manufacturing centers to the American heartland, this flow would closely match the path of MERS. Even as China and Korea strive to contain the current outbreak, people are travelling the globe. It is only a matter of time before MERS appears in Hong Kong. Travel-related cases have been reported across Europe.  

The danger of this communicable disease is that you do not need to go to where it is endemic to be exposed. For example, business meetings offer a particularly opportune environment for transmission. The virus is spread by contact. So far this has largely been close contact such as caring for someone with the illness. The U.S. cases, on the other hand, were a result of business-type interactions. Handshakes, telephones and elevator call buttons become prime sources for acquiring the virus.  

washing handsClearly, anyone who has traveled recently to the Middle or Far East should be aware of symptoms. Most people infected with MERS-CoV developed severe respiratory illness, with fever, cough and shortness of breath. The disease can also induce gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. MERS can also lead to kidney failure.

According to the CDC:  “Americans (can) help protect themselves from respiratory illnesses by washing hands often, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoid touching their eyes, nose and/or mouth with unwashed hands and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.” 

A brief overview of MERS can be heard here. As always, awareness and basic self-protection are your best defense.

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