The World Health Organisation will hold a meeting with international health experts and government officials today to discuss whether to elevate the status of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) to a “public health emergency of international concern”.
Such a decision could see a coordinated international response to the disease, with regulations similar to those implemented in response to H1N1, the 2009 pandemic strain of influenza that killed 18,000.
In a statement on Monday, WHO said many questions about the virus, which has killed at least 147 people since it was detected in 2012, remained unanswered and “several urgent actions are needed”.
“The most important ones are the need for countries, both inside and outside of the region, to increase their levels of awareness among all people but especially among staff working in their health systems and to increase their levels of surveillance about this new infection,” the organisation said.
“Countries also need to assess their level of preparedness and readiness if this virus should spread.”
The Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia, where the virus originated, said on Monday five new deaths related to MERS had taken the death toll to 147, while well over 500 have been infected.
Thirty-seven people have been infected in the UAE, as of Sunday.
The number of infections and fatalities has skyrocketed since April and cases have been detected in new countries, leading to increased fears of a global outbreak similar to SARS five years ago.
MERS is a coronavirus, similar to SARS that killed about 800 people.
However, there is no evidence of sustained transmission of MERS between people. Camels are believed to be a significant harbourer of the disease and Saudi Arabian authorities have warned those dealing with the animal to wear face masks.
WHO said MERS was “an important and major challenge for all of the countries which have been affected as well as the rest of the world”.
Part of the challenge was the lack of knowledge about the virus.
“There are many other things that we don’t understand. For example, how are people getting infected? Is it from animals? Is it from contaminated surfaces? Is it from other people?” the WHO statement says.
“Finally, we don’t know how widespread is this virus, both in this region and in other countries.
“The greatest global concern, however, is about the potential for this new virus to spread.
“Of most concern, however, is the fact that the different clusters seen in multiple countries increasingly support the hypothesis that when there is close contact this novel coronavirus can transmit from person-to-person. This pattern of person-to-person transmission has remained limited to some small clusters and so far, there is no evidence that this virus has the capacity to sustain generalised transmission in communities.”
The organisation moved to praise Saudi Arabia’s handling of the virus outbreak, following criticism within the kingdom that not enough was being done to contain it.
Last month an Australian virologist said Saudi Arabia was not on top of the situation.
"We can only hope that the current hot zone, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, soon gets ahead of the outbreak through proactive action,” Ian Mackay, a virologist affiliated with the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre at the University of Queensland, told Associated Press.
"It seems that infection prevention and control has broken down in these health care outbreaks and this will need to be addressed throughout the region."
WHO said Saudi Arabia had taken the virus “very seriously”.
“The Ministry of Health has initiated crucial public health actions - including intensifying surveillance, initiating investigations and important research and putting control measures in place.
One of the reasons why more cases have been identified in KSA may be because they have gone ahead to strengthen their surveillance system and lab capacities and network.”
WHO is expected to make another statement following the emergency meeting in Geneva.For all the latest health tips & news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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