What's this SARS-like virus?

MALAYSIA - I recently had some friends from the Middle East visit Malaysia. They talked a lot about MERS, a virus that is going around in the Middle East now. What is it really?

MERS is an acronym for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). It is a viral respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

It is actually a newly discovered virus. It was reported in Sept 2012 by an Egyptian virologist in Saudi Arabia. He found and isolated the coronavirus from the lungs of a 60-year-old man with acute pneumonia and renal failure. This 60-year-old man might be Patient Zero, the first to show symptoms and signs of the disease.

The Egyptian doctor, Dr Zaki, then posted his findings on email. MERS-CoV still wasn't referred to as MERS-CoV before May 23, 2013. Previously, it was called a SARS-like virus from the Middle East, or the 'Saudi SARS'.

Malaysia is host to many Middle Eastern tourists. Should I be worried?

Our airports take the same precautions to screen visitors who enter Malaysia as it did during the SARS epidemic. The temperature gauges are still there to screen visitors for fever.

Most of our Middle Eastern tourists are not sick, but you should take pains to avoid anyone - not just Middle Eastern tourists - who show signs of a respiratory illness which can possibly infect you or your loved ones. And if you can't avoid them, then at least take precautions to protect yourself.

In Feb 2012, the WHO stated that "person to person transmission" risk of the MERS virus is "very low". Dr Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Health in Maryland states that as of now, MERS-CoV "does not spread in a sustained person-to-person" way like the flu virus.

However, this does not mean that the MERS virus will not mutate into a strain that will transmit from person to person. Viruses are very quick to mutate.

As of May 2013, WHO has warned that the "MERS virus is a threat to the entire world". The CDC now acknowledges that the MERS virus seems to be spreading from people to people who are in VERY CLOSE CONTACT.

The virus has also spread from patients to healthcare personnel who were looking after them.

Where did the MERS virus come from?

No one knows yet. It is speculated that the MERS virus might have originated in bats, much like the Nipah virus.

There are a lot of caves in Saudi Arabia and this has resulted in a water system that is derived from these caves. There is a strong correlation between cave-derived water and bat guano.

Have there been plenty of deaths from MERS?

At this point in writing, the CDC website states that there have been 77 deaths from April 2012.

The most deaths occurred in Saudi Arabia (36), but other Middle East countries are also affected: Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia and UAE.

However, it seems to have also spread to Europe, with UK, France and Italy having infected cases and deaths.

How can I recognise MERS in myself or others?

MERS manifests as an acute respiratory illness, which means you get fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

Some patients have had a mild version of the illness. But half of the patients who contracted MERS have so far died.

I am actually scheduled to travel to Mecca for the Haj this year. Should I be cancelling my Haj?

So far, Malaysia has not issued any travel warnings to the Middle East. Nor have the WHO or CDC, so you can travel. However, keep an eye on reports in the newspapers should the situation change.

What can I do to protect myself and my family?

These are several things you can do to help prevent respiratory illness:

Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

Avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth if your hands are not washed.

Whenever you sneeze or cough, cover your mouth with a tissue and throw the tissue away in the rubbish bin.

Avoid having close contact, such as kissing and sharing cups and eating utensils or towels with people who are sick.

Always try to clean and disinfect surfaces that are frequently touched in your house or workplace, such as doorknobs and toys.

Is there a cure or vaccine for MERS?

Currently, there isn't any. Medical care will only be symptomatic and supportive. But scientists are working on a vaccine.

Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health advice, computers and entertainment.