April 27, 2014 -- Cases of the MERS Coronavirus have significantly increased in the last few months, and in recent weeks there have been reports of the virus in new countries including Egypt, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, leaving officials struggling to figure out why infections have increased.
The MERS Coronavirus, which stands for Middle Eastern Respiratory Coronavirus, was first identified in late 2012 and causes acute respiratory illness, shortness of breath and in severe cases kidney failure. The virus is related to the SARS virus and the common cold.
There have been 350 cases and more than 100 deaths reported worldwide from the virus, although the World Health Organization (WHO) has laboratory-confirmed only 254 cases with 93 deaths. Most of the reported infections have come from Middle East countries including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
While public health experts have been tracking the disease for nearly two years, in recent weeks health officials are reporting a sharp rise in cases. The WHO reported at least 78 confirmed cases since the beginning of the year, and that diagnosed cases sharply increased in mid-March.
This week the WHO released a report, which said that among newly diagnosed cases up to 75 percent could be human-to-human transmission, since a large number of health workers were infected with the disease. However there is evidence that the reason for the increase could be related to increased testing for the virus and a seasonal increase in the disease rather than virus mutation.
Dr. Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist and professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, has been investigating the virus and said 75 percent of camels in Saudi Arabia have had the disease. Lipkin points out that as camels are born in the spring the virus can spread from the young animals to people who interact with them.
"The younger animals have the virus and become infected and become little virus factories," said Lipkin, who explained that camels are extremely common in Saudi Arabia and surrounding countries.
"It's almost like dogs in the U.S. Except they eat the camels ... there's so much opportunity," for the virus to spread, he said.
Lipkin also pointed out that when patients are treated with invasive pulmonary measures, the virus "deep in the lungs" can come to the surface and infect health care workers treating these patients. Lipkin said to combat the spread, more oversight will be needed to both regulate people's interactions with camels and to protect healthcare workers from infection.
Currently there is no vaccine for the MERS Coronavirus. There have been no reported cases in the U.S. and the CDC has not issued any travel advisories related to the disease.