Just like the Sars epidemic in its early phase, scientists are stumped over the origin and transmission mode of the Mers or Middle East respiratory syndrome virus. Animals are suspected, as was the Sars viral source which eventually was traced to the live animal markets of southern China. Since the first illnesses were reported in the Arabian peninsula, where most of the 500-odd cases have been concentrated, scattered cases have emerged in South-east Asia, Europe and the United States. Air travel, unhappily, is the enabler in the spread of modern epidemics. And just as the mortality rate of Sars was high in the initial stage before settling at 10 per cent, the Mers death rate is running at close to 30 per cent.
These are discomfiting similarities. More ominous is the fact that the two viruses are related, like cousins. Scientists say the Mers variant is more virulent as it could cause kidney damage as well. Considering the threat to public health - and the economic fallout - prudence should override any tendency to be lulled by the slower spread of Mers. With memories of the Sars devastation still fresh, it is not too early for Singapore to consider community precautions, although scientists feel Mers does not transmit easily between people.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has not proposed border screening for fevers and coughs, while travel restrictions are remote because of the economic impact. WHO does not wish to sound alarmist, but individual nations ought to review their circumstances. The Ramadan and haj observances in the next few months will draw to Saudi Arabia thousands of pilgrims from the world over, including South-east Asia. This region is vulnerable and it should be prepared for any contingency as large crowds are a feature of the Mecca and Medina pilgrimage season.
Changi Airport has begun handing out literature on Mers to passengers travelling between West Asia and Changi. Why not all passengers? It is not an inconvenience to implement temperature screening of arriving passengers. This was one of the preventive measures which swiftly brought Sars under control inside a year, in late 2003. A public information campaign and tips on hand hygiene and cough etiquette should also be considered. The public health authorities have a well-ordered process refined during the Sars days. It is best to be prepared should the spread across continents accelerate.
The pall cast by Sars over Singapore was great: fear in the community, deserted streets, empty restaurants, a drying up in tourism, job losses. While control of epidemics requires international coordination which takes time to organise, nations acting on their own can move faster to protect themselves.
This article was published on May 14 in The Straits Times.
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