MERS Coronavirus in the UAE - the risks

We speak to an expert to find out if you're at threat

Area Guides

MERS-CoV has been making headlines here this year for all the wrong reasons. But should people in the UAE be worried about contracting the bug? Kelly Crane asks the experts.

The common cold is, somewhat bizarrely, a regular occurrence in the UAE for most of us. From a few snuffles and sneezes to a chesty cough, headache and runny nose, any changes to air-conditioned environments, temperature and a population of constant travellers are culprits often slapped with the blame.

But what if one day, the usual pint of honey and lemon Lemsip didn’t solve the constant dripping?

The word ‘coronavirus’ has been lurking in the regional press since September last year and just last month, the illness claimed another victim in the Middle East. With symptoms similar to that of the common cold, we know very little of what we’re looking for or where to go for help to deal with the virus.

Coronaviruses are found worldwide and cause issues of varying severity, ranging from a basic cold to the severe respiratory disease, SARS. As of August 2013, there have been 94 confirmed cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), which is a new type of coronavirus and has so far only affected people with links to Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Cause for concern though is the World Health Organisaton has confirmed 46 of the 94 cases have resulted in death.

Panic not, however, as Dr Riani Grosskopf at Cooper Health Clinic Dubai, says there is ‘nothing to worry about’ for UAE residents, but that it ‘makes sense’ to be aware of the virus and its symptoms.

‘There are no health warnings or travel restrictions in place due to MERS-CoV,’ says the South African expert. ‘We do however need people to be aware of it and if you have any health concerns, check with your doctor at an early stage. Good hygiene practices, washing hands regularly and avoiding contact with sick people could be precautionary measures.

‘If you do fall sick, especially if you have a high fever and a cough, see your doctor. Don’t worry though, as it may just be an ordinary chest infection,’ says Grosskopf.

Due to there being very few reports of human-to-human transmission, animals are believed to be the main reservoir of the MERS virus. New research published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, claims Dromedary camels could be the carrier.

With only a small number of cases reported so far, the World Health Organisation (WHO), is not currently (as of August 9, 2013) advising trade or travel restrictions or entry screening, though it advises routine measures for assessing sick travellers.

So what should UAE residents and visitors here be looking for exactly? MERS-CoV is characterised by respiratory complaints and fever, according to Grosskopf. ‘You might have chills, cough a lot and be short of breath,’ she says. ‘This can however be the case with a lot of illnesses, such as flu or bronchitis.’

Healthcare providers around the world have been advised to ‘maintain vigilance’ by WHO and educate people about MERS-CoV wherever possible.

Grosskopf says the more people know about the virus, the more likely they are to help prevent further cases. But any travellers returning from the Middle East who develop a respiratory illness should be tested for MERS-CoV under current WHO surveillance recommendations.

‘If you’ve travelled to Saudi Arabia in the past 14 days or if you have been in contact with someone with a severe respiratory illness such as pneumonia, be extra cautious,’ advises Grosskopf. ‘The elderly, those with chronic medical problems and pregnant women really should also be especially vigilant.’

Doctors can test for MERS-CoV by taking a sputum sample, which is ‘the best way to test’ for the illness, says Grosskopf, or a nasal or throat swab. ‘It is possible to do a blood test,’ she adds. ‘But the sputum is quick, easy and it can save lives.’

Tips for prevention

Yasmine Nemazee, Internal Medicine Specialist at Infinity Health Clinic Dubai, says UAE residents shouldn’t be alarmed but should stay vigilant. ‘It is unclear where the virus originated and how exactly it is transmitted,’ says the American doctor. ‘But just like with any illness, prevention is key.’

• Avoid contact with those who are ill.
• Wash your hands often.
• Avoid eating any uncooked, under-cooked meat or unwashed fruits and vegetables.
• Avoid drinks that are not made from clean water.
• See a doctor if you are in doubt.
For continually updated information, visit www.who.int

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