News / Health

    As MERS Infections Rise, Asia Reflects on SARS

    City employee wearing protective mask walks past local government anti-SARS advertisement, Shanghai, Dec. 29, 2003.
    City employee wearing protective mask walks past local government anti-SARS advertisement, Shanghai, Dec. 29, 2003.
    The deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has killed more than one hundred people so far, but many questions remain about its origins and method of transmission.

    In Hong Kong, analysts say lessons learned eleven years ago with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) — a genetically similar pandemic that killed almost 300 people in 2003 — can be applied to slow MERS infections.

    A respiratory disease caused by a type of coronavirus, MERS is a common virus that infects animals and humans, causing fever and coughing and, in serious cases, pneumonia and kidney failure.

    First reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012, MERS has proven fatal in 102 of the kingdom's 339 confirmed cases reported since that time.

    Although the disease has since spread to other spots in the Middle East — Egypt recently reported a handful of cases — reports are also turning up in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia.

    According to Malik Peiris, the director of the center for influenza research at Hong Kong University, the comparison between MERS and SARS is striking.

    “When SARS started, in the November-December period of 2002, what we were seeing was also clusters of cases, clusters of human patients with severe pneumonia, [and] at that time nobody knew what it was," said Peiris, who leads the Hong Kong laboratory that was responsible for isolating the SARS virus in 2003.

    Scientists only later confirmed the SARS pandemic was caused by a virus that originated from Chinese bats and jumped across species to humans.

    "Each of those clusters [would die] out and then a fresh cluster of cases [would appear] somewhere else, all within Guangdong in Southern China," he said. "And then, a few months later, by January-February, the virus started to transmit in a sustained fashion from human to human.”

    Within months, Peiris says, SARS spanned more than 25 countries, touching all five continents.

    A turning point

    For China, the epidemic that went on to claim nearly 800 lives worldwide represented a turning point for national health policy.

    At first, Beijing authorities downplayed the seriousness of the virus and barred new outlets from reporting new cases.

    Prompted by the leaks of a doctor in Beijing, however, Chinese health officials eventually admitted they had covered up information to avoid panic, and then notified the World Health Organization about the real magnitude of the situation.

    According to analysts, the delays exacerbated the epidemic. In retrospect, the cover up only underscores the high cost of secrecy on matters of public health.

    When MERS first appeared in Saudi Arabia, Peiris says, there was also a delay in releasing information.

    “There was some time lost during that early phase, 2012-2013, in which much more could have been learned," he said. "But over the recent months, I think there really has been significant awareness and action in this regard.”

    On Monday, Saudi Arabia's health minister was fired after he told a news conference that the April surge in MERS cases could be seasonal and that his office was not about to order additional preventative measures.

    Health professionals at risk

    Like SARS, MERS spreads rapidly within hospitals with a high percentage of infection among health-care workers.

    According to Professor Nelson Lee, a specialist in infectious diseases, Hong Kong's hospitals are now much better prepared to handle respiratory epidemics.

    A medical officer at Prince of Wales Hospital, the medical center at the forefront of Hong Kong's SARS outbreak, Lee says that, in 2003, the city's public hospitals had inadequately trained staff and lacked isolation facilities, causing many of his colleagues to develop pneumonia.

    “Airborne isolation facilities are now present in all of the major hospitals in Hong Kong," he said. "We learned the proper triage is important, so every patient who gets admitted to the hospital with a respiratory illness and pneumonia will be asked some risk factors for acquiring emerging infection disease.”

    Patients are now asked about travel history, recent contact with sick people and whether they have noticed clusters of illness within their family or at work, he says.

    “If a patient now comes into the hospital with a travel history to the Middle East and signs of pneumonia for example, we will test him or her for the MERS coronavirus.”

    Despite the improvements, Hong Kong's SARS survivors still face difficulties.

    “Because of the heavy use of drugs during the treatment, [SARS patients] have developed some problems within their bones," said Hong Kong lawyer Alex Lam. "They had to replace the joints and they have to use walking stick. Some may even need to use wheelchairs. Other people are facing mental difficulties, so there is a trauma.”

    Diagnosed with SARS in 2003, Lam was given a mix of drugs including steroids, only to receive further blood testing that proved his initial diagnosis a mistake.

    Now chairman of the Hong Kong SARS Mutual Help Association, Lam leads the group that helps former SARS patients overcome the consequences of illness.

    “Looking at the positive side, we did learn a lesson, although we paid a very heavy price for this,” Lam said.

    Like SARS, the virus behind MERS has also been detected in a number of animals, including bats and camels. While scientists believe camels might be the primary source, they have not found convincing evidence to confirm the link, nor explain how it may have jumped from animals to humans.

    Until they do, those faced with the threat of MERS can only look to other regions that survived a threat of such mysterious origins.

    You May Like

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    City could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters

    Turkey Aims New Crackdown at Journalists, Academics, Airline Workers

    Ankara continues targeting people allegedly linked to exiled cleric, who it says led the failed military coup

    Pakistan Ready to Inaugurate Rebuilt Afghan Border Crossing

    Construction of Torkham Gate triggered deadly clashes between Pakistani and Afghan military forces

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunitiesi
    X
    VOA News
    July 25, 2016 5:09 PM
    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Four Brother Goats Arrive in Brooklyn on a Mission

    While it's unusual to see farm animals in cities, it's become familiar for residents of Brooklyn, New York, to see a little herd of goats. Unlike gas-powered mowing equipment, goats remove invasive weeds quietly and without adding more pollution to the air. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this is a pilot program and if it proves to be successful, the goat gardener program will be extended to other areas of New York. Faith Lapidus narrates.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora