Stopping that deadly little virus

PHOTO: Stopping that deadly little virus

It has claimed the lives of 157 people in Saudi Arabia alone, and kills almost one in three people who contract it. Even so, the nature and spread of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) virus remains something of a mystery.

While the virus might not have hit our shores, the Health Ministry is taking no chances as the risk increases with each new case.

From Sunday, temperature checks will be carried out at Singapore's airports for passengers arriving from affected areas. This is a step up in vigilance from the health circulars already being handed out.

"With today's globalised travel patterns, the possibility of an imported case cannot be ruled out," said Benjamin Ong, director of medical services at the ministry.

"Because of this, we cannot be complacent and have already been working with the health-care institutions and other government agencies to enhance preparedness and vigilance."

Temperature screening might not be able to pick up all cases due to the virus' long incubation period of 14 days, as well as mild cases with no obvious symptoms. But the Health Ministry feels that the precaution is necessary.

Mers, with its 30 per cent fatality rate, might be deadlier than the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus, which kills 10 per cent of its victims, but fortunately the former is not transmitted as easily.

There has been no sustained human-to-human transmission. So far, the virus has been passed on only among family members, and between patients and health-care workers in a hospital setting. There have been no secondary transmissions.

But the danger remains, as experts point out that it could mutate.

"The spread will not be huge if the virus is the same as that in the Middle East, but all it takes is for the virus to mutate and have sustained human to human transmission, and we would be in big trouble," said Wang Linfa, director of the emerging infectious disease programme at Duke-NUS.

But for now the genetic profile has not changed, and it remains "fairly fragile and does not survive well outside of the human body", said Dr Kenneth Chan, a respiratory specialist at Respiratory Medical Associates.

"It is destroyed by most regular cleaning agents," he added.

The Mers virus, which was first identified in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, has animal origins. Camels have been pinpointed as a likely source of infection to humans. But how this takes place remains unclear.

Some 150 individuals have been tested for the virus here since 2012, including 48 this year. So far, all results have been negative.

At present, there is no vaccine against the Mers virus, but all Health Ministry and health-care institutions here are equipped to run diagnostic tests for it.

In the event of a confirmed case, contact tracing will be conducted and quarantine orders of 14 days will be imposed on exposed contacts. Those with symptoms will be isolated in hospital for further tests.

The Health Ministry advises travellers to wear a mask when feeling unwell and to consider vaccinations against influenza and meningitis. Even if the vaccinations do not prevent Mers, they can prevent false alarms among those running high fever.

High fever is a symptom of influenza, meningitis and Mers.

Get MyPaper for more stories.