Weighing the sands of risk

The tourist view: but camels are suspected carriers of MERS which kills one in three of those infected

Recent reports from Saudi Arabia indicate that more than 100 people have died of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), an illness first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 but now with scores of cases around the world. You might ask what has this to do with Rye? With the Gulf, Oman and Egypt popular destinations for travel and, with the holiday season upon us, it is likely that the disease will spread and risks will increase. This is why the Rye Emergency Action Community Team (REACT), a group I lead, discussed MERS at its meeting this week.

Cases of MERS  have been confirmed in Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia, Egypt, the Netherlands – and the UK and US. Although camels are suspected to be the primary source of infection for humans, the exact routes of direct or indirect exposure remain unclear.

With the Gulf now a key travel hub, and the area dependent on large numbers of migrant workers, the concern is that the virus has the potential to spread far and wide. So far, person-to-person transmission has remained limited to some small clusters, with no evidence that the virus has the capacity to become pandemic. Clinical experts believe the virus is not very contagious; if it were, more cases would have been reported. But – about a third of those infected have died.

The precise origin of the virus is unknown. It may result from a new mutation of an existing virus that has been circulating in animals, such as camels, and has now made the jump to humans. It is suspected that MERS can transfer between people in close contact, probably by airborne droplets from an infected person coughing or sneezing. Clinicians have yet to devise effective treatment as people with severe symptoms need intensive medical care to help them breath. As yet there is no preventative vaccine.

Fortunately, it is a fragile virus, which can survive only for a day outside the human body and can easily be destroyed by usual detergents and cleaning agents. The World Health Organisation reported on May 14 that “the spread of the potentially fatal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome has become more serious and urgent . . . but for now, at least . . . MERS does not constitute a global health emergency”.

Public Health England is quoted on the UK Cabinet Office website as saying: “The risk of UK residents contracting infection in the UK remains very low, but the risk to UK residents travelling to Middle Eastern countries may be slightly higher.”

The UK authorities, it appears, are being slow to publicise specific health advice, but if you are planning to go anywhere in the Gulf area do ask about MERS.



Anthony Kimber is an experienced emergency planning consultant