MERS, the new virus that caught the world's attention


Since 2012, an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus has affected several countries, especially the Middle East. The virus, which causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), is a newly emerged beta coronavirus that was first identified in a ptient from Saudi Arabia in April 2012. Most infections with human coronaviruses are mild and associated with common colds. However, both MERS-CoV and SARS CoV (severe acute respiratory syndrome) are betacoronaviruses. MERS-CoV likely came from a camel in the Arabian Peninsula.

MERS is not MRSA

Do not confuse MERS with MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) which is a strain of staph bacteria that is resistant to the antibiotics normally used to treat such infections. MRSA affects patients with weakened immune systems or those who had recently undergone surgery. Staph skin infections start off as a small, red bump that resembles a spider bite — these infections can progress quickly, turning into swollen, painful abscesses, which doctors need to surgically drain. If the bacteria burrow deeper, they can cause infections throughout the body, including in the bloodstream, heart, bones, joints, lungs and surgical wounds, which can result in chest pain, fever and even death.

MERS-CoV Symptoms

Some infected people had mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, but most people infected with MERS-Cov developed severe respiratory ilness – they had fever, cough and shortness of breath. Other reported having gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea or nausea / vomiting and kidney failure. MERS can even be deadly.

How MERS spreads

MERS-CoV is thought to spread from an infected person to others through respiratory secretions, such as caughing. In other countries, the virus has spread from person to person through close contact, such us caring for or living with an infected person. Travelers who live or come from Middle East and the Republic of Korea within 14 days and develop flu like symptoms must be checked.

How to protect yourself from respiratory illnesses

There is currently no vaccine to prevent MERS-CoV infection. CDC routinely advises people to help protect themselves from respiratory illnesses by:

  • Frequent washing of hands
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces
  • Avoid local outbreaks and crowded areas
  • If you have flu-like symptoms (cough, sore throat, runny nose) see the doctor right away and inform travel path.

How Thailand and South Korea cope with MERS

Thailand's status as a hub for medical tourism could be helping the country contain the spread of MERS, government and health officials said, after confirming its first case of the deadly virus this month. Tourism accounts for about 10 % of the Thai economy, and the country is also the top destination in Southeast Asia for patients seeking low-cost, quality healthcare, with an average 1.4 million medical tourists a year, compared with 600,000 for Singapore.

As well as being a gateway for many of the more than 25 million visitors to Thailand each year, Bangkok is also one of the region's main aviation hubs. At the city's Suvarnabhumi Airport, face masks were handed out to passengers and the airport has ordered heightened screening of arrivals from South Korea and the Middle East.

Medical tourists from Mers-affected countries travelling to Thailand for medical services, through agency arrangements, will be required to undergo tests for the virus one week ahead of their entry. Authorities believe the Mers situation in Thailand is under control.

For example, Vejthani Hospital in Bangkok has taken maximum level of precaution to ensure the containment of the spreading of MERS. There is no case of MERS-CoV in the hospital, however Vejthani ensures that  facility policies and practices are in place to minimize exposure to such virus. They have implemented precautionary measures prior to entering the hospital. All patients will be screened by thermoscan located in front of hospital entrance. Also, the medical team is ready to respond quickly in the event of MERS-CoV outbreak.

The evolving outbreak of the Middle-East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in South Korea is the largest to date outside the Middle Eastern countries. Korean health officials reported new cases recently, edging its total to 174, and bringing the fatality count to 26. The outbreak began in the middle of May with the illness of a man who returned home after traveling to four Middle Eastern countries. He arrived back in South Korea on May 4, he started having symptoms on May 11, but his MERS-CoV infection wasn't detected until May 20.

Hundreds of schools have been closed in the country but experts do not consider this outbreak, in which all cases are hospital-associated, to have pandemic potential or even expect it to spread further within South Korea. One of the reasons is that MERS is not a human virus. It was first detected in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and it is primarily an animal virus, thought to have originated in bats. It occasionally jumps to humans through animal intermediates, probably camels. Because it spreads very poorly between people, MERS-CoV can be controlled by public-health measures, which South Korean authorities are now pursuing aggressively. The authorities have been exceptionally thorough in tracing all contacts of infected people and monitoring them for 14 days - the maximum incubation period of the disease. Any who begin to show symptoms are isolated.

Is MERS affecting medical tourism?

Countries whose hospitals have identified MERS in patients from the Middle East now include Turkey, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, UK, Malaysia and the Philippines. Canada is reported to be on “red alert” against the threat of MERS.

Infection prevention and control measures are critical to prevent the possible spread of MERS-CoV in health care facilities. It is not always possible to identify patients with MERS-CoV early because, like other respiratory infections, the early symptoms of MERS-CoV are non-specific. Therefore, health-care workers should always apply standard precautions consistently with all patients, regardless of their diagnosis.

Industry watchers say it will take some more time to see whether the outbreak will really deal a blow to the medical tourism industry because people usually book their holiday months before their actual visit.

PlacidWay is a global medical tourism company that helps patients evaluate their options, providing helpful tools and details in order to make the best decision. Every patient needs to know the choices that best fit his/her needs in terms of budget, health conditions and destination. More than providing access to executive check-ups and treatments, we strongly believe in creating a customer-service oriented experience that is safe, affordable, high-quality and culturally unique to every medical traveller.

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