Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Great Saudi MERS Coronavirus Malady



The Saudi Gazette ran a story the other day on the death of a health worker in a government hospital to Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) - Coronavirus.  He was the second health care worker to die of the disease in a Saudi Ministry of Health Hospital.  As always with life in the Magic Kingdom, there is an interesting story that can be found in the dusty haze of Saudi's handling of the Coronavirus situation.  Here's my take on 'The Great Saudi MERS Coronavirus Malady'

MERS CoV (an official term for the virus) has been quietly rumbling around Saudi Arabia since being discovered in 2012.  According to figures in the Gazette, since being identified 369 people have been infected with the disease and 111 have died - a fairly high mortality rate, wouldn't you say?

The virus has also been turning up in other parts of the globe - the latest countries to report MERS CoV include Egypt, Malaysia, the Philippines, Greece, Yemen and most recently, America.  Given that Saudi is a mecca for foreign workers from all over the world it is hardly surprising that the virus is being carried offshore to everywhere else.

The health experts had a few questions about the MERS virus (as it's locally known) when it first turned up on the scene - Where did it originate from?  What was the mode of transmission?  How could it be treated?   Two years later, they are still asking the same questions.  They think the virus originated from an animal - possibly camels.  They know that the virus spreads between people who are in close contact, but aren't sure of exact transmission.  There is still no vaccine for prevention or cure for seriously affected cases.

When news of the virus first broke to the public in Saudi Arabia, people were a little concerned given that not much was known about it other than a quarter of the people who caught it died.  The public were understandably a little nervous and wanted answers to questions - mostly, how not to catch it!

By the looks of things, Saudi wasn't quite sure what to do with the growing concern regarding the virus, so settled for their usual ploy of 'The Great Cover Up'  (sounds abaya-ish doesn't it - they must have thought the virus was a woman!), mostly in relation to honestly informing the public of MERS severity, but also, apparently, on advising and updating interested international health organisations assisting research of the new bug.

Educating the public on steps to take to reduce chances of catching this, or any, virus were a non-event.  In fact, recent reports suggest that, under instructions from the previous Health Minister, health care workers were threatened if they raised alarm about the outbreak.  (Said Minister was recently sacked for his mis-handling of the whole affair).  For all the Ministry's attempts to keep information about MERS on the down low, media kept reporting that people were dying from it.


Latest news suggests the virus appears to be 'surging' in Saudi, which is a bit of a concern.  It may indicate that the virus has mutated into a form that can more easily be passed from person to person or it may simply mean more cases are being tested and diagnosed.  Whatever the cause,  I assume this surge and its associated concern, is the reason for the appointment of a new Health Minister a few weeks ago, who has hit the ground running - stepping up public awareness campaigns, creating MERS task forces, setting up designated treatment centers and even Tweeting and Facebooking information and updates, and encouraging everybody to take steps to protect themselves and their families.

It seems the health care workers, if not the country, have heaved a huge sigh of relief that the Cover Up on the MERS Coronavirus is over and now they can focus on taking the actions necessary to keep themselves, and the rest of the community healthy, safe in the knowledge that the government will be aiding them.  On a recent visit to a hospital more than a few hospital staff were wearing masks while on routine work.  And even out in the public the number of face masked expats in crowded public places, like supermarkets, has increased.  (I'm just waiting for the religious fervent to tell all foreign women to start wearing niqabs as MERS protection).

I had the chance to talk to my doctor about viruses the other day.  I've had a bit of a chest infection lately so thought it best to seek out some medical treatment.  It turns out my infection was viral, determined when there was absolutely no response to the antibiotics he prescribed.  Viruses, said the Doctor on my return visit, are going to kill off the human race one day!  What a pleasant thought.

This is what else he told me, in a nutshell:

ARCHOO!

Viruses, unlike bacteria, are smart little suckers.  Most bacteria tend to die off outside the body in a matter of seconds if there is no food source or the environment isn't conducive to staying alive.  Many viruses, however, can survive outside the body much longer than bacteria - up to 14 hours he was saying.  Which means, if a bloke with a bacterial infection sneezes on your clean, dry table, the bacteria will likely die soon after and anyone else putting his hand on the table and then rubbing his eye or picking his nose won't get the infection.  However, if that bloke has a viral infection, sneezes on the table and you practice the bad human habits previously mentioned after laying your hand on the table anytime within the survival period of the virus which, as previously stated, is quite a while, you will get the virus.  And if you aren't particularly healthy or are susceptible to viral infection, you will get sick.  Lovely.
Viruses, he said, are also able to mutate very quickly (a matter of hours in some cases, apparently) into some other form and scientists haven't yet figured out how to preempt what form a mutating virus might take.  Added to that, for most viral infections there is no anti-viral medication.  So even if we could guess the change, we probably couldn't do anything about it, anyway.  Once we've caught a viral infection, all we can do is relieve symptoms and support our immune system as it attempts to deal with the problem greebly.
In order to not catch viruses, we have to start paying attention to our human behavior.  Which means a couple of basic things really - washing hands and cleaning stuff.  
The single most important thing you can do to prevent the spread of disease is to wash your hands regularly - before, and especially after, touching anyone else or anything that someone else has touched (or coughed and sneezed on).  ( It's amazing how many things people actually touch in the course of a day - I attempted to take note this morning, till the exercise got boring and I gave up - my stickability issues run deep!)  If you do touch someone else or something touched by others then: 
Don't pick your nose.
Don't rub your eyes.
Don't eat with your fingers...
- not until you've washed your hands! 
Of course, staying out of breathing, coughing or sneezing range of coughing, sneezing, heavy breathing types is also a good idea.  Wearing a mask as a barrier to picking up air-borne coughed a sneezed things wouldn't hurt at all, though people may look at you like you're an over-reacting hypochondriac - that is until they get sick and you are not!  
If you are the coughing and sneezing type, stay home, in bed, away from other people!
If you insist on subjecting friends, family and the general public to your presence, have plenty of tissues, or wear a mask, into which you can cough, sneeze or heavily breathe.   Wash your hands regularly - especially after coughing or sneezing into them because you didn't buy a mask or bring a tissue! 
And stay away from camels! 

Obviously my doctor and I were having a fine old chat and these fairly simple precautions aren't new nor are they rocket science, but they should reduce the risk of catching MERS CoV or any other nasty bug for that matter, said my Doctor.  

It seems the messages he was passing on to me, or something along similar lines, is now going to be spread throughout the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia courtesy of the new Minister of Health.   And I think he will be talking to a population prepared to listen.  One friend told me of weddings that have been down sized due to concern about MERS and my husband sent through this little diagram he had received from his office...


Of course the government is in a bit of a quandary what to do about the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages.  Masses of people gathering in one place is like a viral hoe down.  Though the Chinese say they may have unearthed a discovery that my lead to treatment, my guess is the cure is a ways off yet, so the Great Saudi MERS Coronavirus Malady gets to live on a while longer yet.



Ka Kite,
Kiwi





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