Just a short while back only a handful of people knew what MERS was. To most people the acronym meant nothing. Today Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus is very well known and much feared, not least in the Kingdom. The Saudi man who died on Wednesday brought the Kingdom’s death toll from the virus to 42. This is against the 47 people who have died globally, making Saudi Arabia the country worst hit by MERS. Saudi authorities say 84 people have been infected, representing the majority of those who have contracted the virus worldwide.
Since 2012 when the virus was first detected, experts have been struggling to understand MERS for which there is still no vaccine and which has an extremely high fatality rate of more than 51 percent.
But to be sure, the panic of the world public because of MERS has definitely receded. Doctors say there is not the same level of concern as there was in Hong Kong or Toronto during the SARS epidemic. MERS is not SARS. SARS sickened more than 8,000 people in 2003 and killed 773 worldwide.
Although MERS has not travelled to the US, American expertise in the field would be of much help to the Kingdom. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the national public health institute of the United States, has a 67-year history that focuses particular attention on infectious diseases. An American team in infectious diseases currently visiting the Kingdom has been presenting technology said to be effective in fighting viruses and bacteria, including MERS, especially in Al-Ahsa which has witnessed the largest number of cases and as the Haj season nears.
The Kingdom should also be taking a leading role in combating MERS. In addition to MERS striking down more victims in Saudi Arabia than anywhere else, MERS first surfaced in the Kingdom in spring 2012. And the virus was first identified and reported by a Saudi, Dr. Ali Mohamed Zaki at Dr. Soliman Fakeeh Hospital in Jeddah. After taking a sample from a Saudi patient's lungs, and after comparing it to other cold and flu viruses and the SARS virus, it became clear that Dr. Zaki had found a new virus. Doctors who have made discoveries of less significance have won the Nobel.
MERS does not spread easily between humans - at least not yet. When the SARS epidemic was going on, many of those caring for patients were infected as well. The fact that this hasn't been seen with MERS so far is a good sign. There is no evidence yet that it is readily transmissible. So far, no travel restrictions have been issued by the WHO, which is another good sign.
Doctors say it's too early to tell whether MERS will spread or just burn out, so it's essential that health officials and the public at large stay vigilant. What's important is continued reporting of active cases which allows for better surveillance.
When earlier this year the head of the World Health Organization announced that MERS, fairly new at that time, was her "greatest concern right now," people worldwide went on a heightened state of emergency. That is no longer the situation. Although one death is one too many, the number of people who have succumbed to MERS in one year is a relatively small figure. Those concerned about being infected can protect themselves simply by frequently washing their hands, cleaning surfaces that could harbor viruses and staying alert.