Myths about MERS

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Myths about MERS

Arabian camels have been identified as the source for the pathogen that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS. A country far away from the Arabian deserts with just a number of exotic camels tucked away in zoos is combating the largest outbreak of the virus outside the Middle East. Korea has won this undesired crown thanks to a ham-fisted government whose only consistent talent is to keep things from the public. Instead of trying to contain the epidemic, it clamped down on rumors.

President Park Geun-hye was out of step in the epidemic crisis from day one. She lashed out at Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon for announcing a quarantine after an infected doctor in southern Seoul attended an event with more than a thousand attendees. He also criticized the government for being secretive about the names of the hospitals that had treated infected patients. Finally the government relented and disclosed a full list of hospital names. It seems the president needs a formidable rival to get worked up enough and do a good job.

I could not be entirely free from MERS phobia. I had stayed at Samsung Medical Center, an epicenter of the outbreak in Seoul, a week ago for four hours for some minor complaint. As a prophylactic measure, I swallowed a mouthful of vitamins, following dubious advice from an SNS posting. I was still jittery so I did some research on the illness. I could not trust the local government or experts in state institutions. So I looked up papers in overseas science magazines and the websites of the World Health Organization (WHO) and America’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

I discovered MERS is not a recent phenomenon. It was discovered 20 years ago in blood samples from camels, which are believed to have been infected by bats, and 75 percent of dromedary camels in Saudi Arabia had antibodies to MERS-CoV or a very similar virus. Antibodies were discovered in 15 out of 10,000 Saudis who consumed camel milk and meat. The findings were 23 times greater among workers at camel slaughterhouses than the general population. A great number of Saudis contract the virus but do not suffer severe health problems. Asymptomatic human infections are possible and even symptomatic cases can be as light as a mild cold.

Is the outbreak dangerous? A coronavirus is a kind of common virus that causes infections in the nose, sinuses and upper throat. Camels also show light symptoms, and the infection is very light in camels. The disease however can permeate deeper into the respiratory tract when it is transmitted to humans and develop into pneumonia. It remains unclear how the pathogen spreads from animals to humans. Although the disease can be fatal to older people and people with heart disease or weak immune systems, the reported fatality rate of 40 percent in the Middle East could be an overstatement. Korea’s fatality rate is much lower so far.

Does it transmit easily? The WHO and CDC claim MERS-CoV does not appear to pass easily from person to person unless there is close contact. Science papers match their findings. About 75 percent of the human-to-human transmissions of the virus have been in health care settings.

Is the disease airborne? Like all respiratory diseases, scientists believe MERS can be spread through droplets coughed into the air. If they are breathed in or land on a surface that someone else touches, that person can contract the disease. The virus is still under study. But there does not seem to be any mutation of the virus. Someone would have to be coughing severely to project the virus into the air.

So why is there no vaccine for MERS? First of all, it would be a poor investment. If the disease were very contagious and life-threatening, there would have been a number of vaccines made by now. There are no confirmed vaccinations for the Ebola virus for the same reason. The MERS virus can be wiped out with soap and blocked out with a mask over the nose and mouth.

It is entirely one’s choice to believe these facts or not. We must not let our guard down until we are clearly assured. But if we worry unduly about a disease, that is also our own choice. SARS, which comes from the same virus family, was entirely combated in two years. All the information on MERS is available. Korean authorities have toughened up quarantines. Personally, I would like to bet that we will come through this as well.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 9, Page 30

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho

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