The big scare from October has died down: only one confirmed case of MERS-CoV has been reported in connection to the Muslim hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca and no pandemic has developed from infection-bearing pilgrims returning home and contaminating thousands of others. However, that is not reason to let the virus fall by the wayside of journalism.
Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome is caused by the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, a relatively newly discovered virus originated in the Arabian Peninsula. As a coronavirus, it is droplet-borne, either carried through the air or transmitted by physical contact. MERS-CoV began circulating in the Peninsula in 2012 and was identified later that year. Most of the cases originated in Saudi Arabia, but so far confirmed cases have also been reported in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Jordan, Italy, Germany, Spain, France and the United Kingdom. Not all infected people have all symptoms or even develop the illness. Symptoms mainly resemble those of SARS (also a respiratory coronavirus) and may include severe respiratory illness — coughing, fever and shortness of breath — as well as chest pain, diarrhea and/or kidney failure. About half of those infected with the virus die. There is no actual cure for MERS-CoV but supportive medical care can be lifesaving, such as in the case of kidney failure.
Muslims traveling to Saudi Arabia for hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) were considered to be particularly at risk for MERS-CoV, since its droplet-borne property enables it to spread easily through crowds of people. Saudi Arabia’s government even issued a warning to those planning to travel to Mecca who may have been at increased risk of infection and resultant health complications, such as those under 12 or over 65, or pregnant women. As a result, about one million people chose to remain home for the year. A Spanish woman was infected with MERS-CoV, as confirmed in early November, but she was in stable condition at the time and no other confirmed cases relating to hajj have been reported.
Although there have not yet been any confirmed cases reported in Israel, government officials said in June that they were keeping a close eye on the disease’s behavior in neighboring countries and were prepared to handle it in the event of an outbreak. Israel’s Jordanian border is under particular scrutiny due to the high volume of traffic passing through every day.
As a result of the declining concern over a pandemic, media coverage of the disease has decreased as well. While there have been relatively few cases recently reported (27 new cases between mid-September and mid-November), the infection has continued to travel to other countries, with the World Health Organization adding Spain, Kuwait and Oman to the list of countries with infected patients. Considering Israel’s borders and high volume of tourist traffic, particularly to Jordan, it is remarkable that no cases have yet been reported from there. However, for the student or other young adult taking advantage of a winter Birthright trip or other opportunity to go to the Middle East, a lack of awareness is a serious disadvantage, particularly for those planning to cross over from Eilat to Petra. While cold and flu season will hopefully remain just that and frequent handwashing will prevent any further infection progression, MERS-CoV is still on the international radar.