MERS fears soar as virus takes toll on humans globally


ISLAMABAD: While polio vaccination has become mandatory for Pakistanis travelling abroad, the country itself is at high risk from Saudi Arabian-origin Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, more commonly known as the MERS virus. The viral disease has already claimed over 200 lives since its discovery in the oil rich kingdom in 2012. 
Ignoring various queries from the Civil Aviation Authority, the government has neither ordered screening of passengers arriving from Saudi Arabia nor put any precaution or vaccination before departure, say sources.
The disease results in coughing, fever and sometimes fatal pneumonia. Experts believe that the virus existed in the vast camel herds of Saudi Arabia. MERS, a new strain of corona viruses, can be killed through a vaccine with the strength to block the virus’ ability to use the host’s cells to reproduce itself. The cure is yet to be developed and mass produced. 
“The government is awaiting a WHO advisory to enact measures against MERS,” says a source in the federal government. 
While Pakistan gets lion’s share in Saudi labor market and scores of flight ferry hundreds of passengers back home, forthcoming Umra season rings alarm bells. 
Dr Athar Niaz Rana, immunologist at Islamabad’s Shifa Hospital, says, “It’s a very serious health issue. The government should have been pro-active in dealing with the threat.”
The World Health Organization, in its most recent advisory, has already called upon “all member states to continue their surveillance for severe acute respiratory infections (SARI) and to carefully review any unusual patterns”. The UN body advised the health-care facilities providing for patients suspected or confirmed to be infected with MERS-CoV infection to take appropriate measures to decrease the risk of transmission of the virus from an infected patient to other patients, health-care workers and visitors.
The government should provide training to health care workers while refreshing their skills on infection prevention and control keeping in mind volume of the Pakistani traffic to and from Saudi Arabia, says Dr Rana.
The WHO recommends addition of droplet precautions to the standard precautions when providing care to all patients with symptoms of acute respiratory infection. “Contact precautions and eye protection should be added when caring for probable or confirmed cases of MERS-CoV infection. Airborne precautions should be applied when performing aerosol generating procedures.”
The detailed precautionary note from the world body says, “Patients should be managed as potentially infected when the clinical and epidemiological clues strongly suggest MERS-CoV, even if an initial test on a nasopharyngeal swab is negative. Repeat testing should be done when the initial testing is negative, preferably on specimens from the lower respiratory tract.” The corona virus family also includes the common cold and SARS, which caused some 800 deaths in 2003.

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