A panel of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) is meeting emergently to discuss the threat of MERS coronavirus and come to an agreement as to whether the virus is an international threat for pandemic that should mandate travel restriction.
A WHO special International Health Regulations Emergency Committee (IHR) meeting takes place today in a closed-door discussion following a teleconference that took place Tuesday.
To date, 65 of 80 confirmed cases of the MERS virus have occurred in Saudi Arabia, including 45 deaths from the virus that causes influenza-like respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms. Mild cases of the virus may go unnoticed.
Among the 15 members of the WHO’s emergency committee is Dr. Theresa Tam, head of the Public Health Agency of Canada's health security infrastructure branch, according to a report from CBCNews, Canada.
Dr. Tam is a respiratory and pandemic disease preparedness specialist.
The Middle East coronavirus resembles SARS — Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome — that causes pneumonia and sometimes death.
SARS was first identified in 2003 and is considered an example of how viruses can quickly spread around the globe as the result of world travel unless quick measures are taken to protect public health.
MERS initially appeared April, 2012 in Saudi Arabia. The concern is that mild cases may go undetected, the WHO said in a statement posted on their website on Tuesday.
Pilgrimages to to Mecca and Medina for the Holy month of Ramadan between July and October have also triggered concerns about the virus spread.
In a press conference held July 5, Dr. Keiji Fukuda reported there have been 79 cases of MERS coronavirus and 42 deaths, with most cases appearing in older people; particularly men and those with co-morbid health conditions. Fukuda announced plans at that time for convening of an International Health Regulations Emergency Committee to provide input on how to handle the emerging cases of the virus that have steadily, though not voraciously, increased over the past few months.
Dr. Fukuda is Assistant Director-General for Health Security and Environment for the Word Health Organization and an epidemiology expert. He previously worked for the Influenza Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.
MERS mortality rate is 60 percent, which is why the virus is concerning. Fukuda said coronavirus seems to spread in communities. One of the reasons for the WHO’s emergency meeting that is made of experts across the globe, is that sporadic infections have occurred and no one is certain how the virus is being transmitted outside of local areas.
There are currently no medications or vaccines to treat MERS coronavirus. Fukuda said treatment for respiratory symptoms is ‘supportive’ — or in other words usual care for a respiratory infection; based on severity of symptoms. It is still unclear whether antibiotics are of any benefit.
The International Health Regulations Emergency Committee meets today in a closed session to finalize decisions about what actions should be taken to curb MERS coronavirus and whether the virus poses a global health threat. There are still many unanswered questions about how the disease is spread other than by direct contact from family members and in hospitals among some health care workers.