New SARS virus, MERS

The SARS virus is a virus that causes the serious illness SARS. In 2013 there was a new variant of this virus, also called MERS. In 2003, more than 800 people succumbed to the SARS virus. It appears that MERS will also cause many deaths. The virus has now also been spotted in Europe. How dangerous is MERS and what are the symptoms?

What is SARS?

SARS is an abbreviation of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. It causes pneumonia that can sometimes be fatal. In 2003, 764 people died from SARS, which first appeared in China at the end of 2002. In total, more than 8,000 people contracted SARS. This brings the death rate to an average of 10 percent. That is more than with flu, which kills approximately 1.5 percent every year. An average of 4.2 percent of patients die from normal pneumonia.

MERS

MERS stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus, or the new SARS virus that first emerged in September 2012. In May 2013, half of the patients had already died from this serious pneumonia. It was spotted in eight different countries that month, including European countries. It was first spotted in Saudi Arabia. The virus naturally occurs mainly in bats, but there can be a host that ultimately transmits it to humans.

Symptoms

Not everyone infected with MERS experiences the same symptoms. Some patients experience the disease as with a mild to severe flu, without it being clear that this is MERS. Other patients become seriously ill from it. Older individuals and people with weakened immune systems are generally more at risk. It is difficult for doctors to diagnose MERS: this often only becomes clear after the patient has recovered or has died. The virus has a preference for settling in lung cells or kidney cells. The following symptoms indicate the SARS variant MERS:

  • Cough attacks, especially a dry cough
  • Fever
  • muscle strain
  • Headache
  • A sore throat
  • Flu-like symptoms

This later follows:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Pneumonia
  • Severe breathing problems
  • Kidney failure

Most patients only see a doctor when they develop pneumonia. Pneumonia precedes a period of sore throat, coughing, nasal congestion and often occasional diarrhea. A real pneumonia can be recognized by the following symptoms:

  • Fever with sweating
  • Coughing, sometimes yellow or green mucus is coughed up (sometimes even blood)
  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath, shallow breathing
  • Chestpain
  • Fatigue

Not everyone shows equally serious symptoms. This mainly has to do with the immune system. The virus is not only spread through the air (coughing, sneezing), but also through skin contact and touching contaminated objects.

Therapy

It is often difficult to suppress a virus. Nevertheless, in 2003 we managed to suppress the SARS virus. For example, Interferon, a drug against Hepatitis C, appears to work against MERS. It also worked on the SARS virus. Furthermore, the patient is treated in isolation to prevent further spread. Sometimes ventilation is necessary. Despite good treatment, it is not always possible to save the patient’s life.

Why is this virus so deadly?

A virus has no metabolism of its own and lives off the metabolism of its host. The intention is therefore not to kill the host. Without a host, the virus itself dies. When a new variant of an existing virus arises, everything is still new for this virus. It attacks its host but proves to be too strong. The host dies. It takes several generations for the virus to weaken itself so that it only makes the host sick, not kills it. Every new virus is therefore dangerous. There will first have to be a number of fatalities before the virus causes nothing more than a cold or flu. This was the case with the Mexican flu and the Spanish flu. The latter in particular claimed many victims: more than 100 million in 1918-1919. These previously deadly flu variants now cause no more than a mild cold. This will be the same with the MERS virus. The only question is how long it will take for the virus to weaken itself, or whether humans will be able to intervene earlier to suppress the virus.
It looks like MERS could become a pandemic. A pandemic is an epidemic that occurs worldwide. The virus can spread easily because it is new and no resistance has yet been built up. It is therefore important to prevent contamination as much as possible. Good precautions regarding hygiene are paramount.

State of affairs MERS

Last updated: June 11, 2013

  • Total number of patients: 55
  • Total number of deceased patients: 31
  • Number of Dutch victims: 0
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