Sunday, 8 September 2013

Flu-like symptoms on the rise in Qatar...

The Gulf Times notes a rise in cases of "flu-like symptoms" in Doha, Qatar. Dr Sameer Kalanden, a general practitioner (GP) notes a rise on cases coming to the clinic. He usually prescribes medication  or "an injection" to reduce the fever (please don't let it be antibiotics..oh. It is antibiotics). 

If there is no sign of improvement, even after a 2nd visit, he refers the case to Hamad General Hospital (managed by Hamad Medical Corporation; HMC).

Another GP confirmed the recent rise in cases with symptoms of "flu and common cold" rising "these days". He also refers cases with more severe respiratory disease to HMC.

So from that we might be able to conclude:

  1. HMC may be the testing lab for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronvirus (CoV) in Qatar. We also know that may/all MERS-CoV cases are confirmed by UK collaborators
  2. That only the most severe cases of illness will be tested for MERS-CoV
  3. GPs do not refer any other acute respiratory illnesses for MERS-CoV testing routinely
  4. There is considerable concern about MERS in Qatar - but not a lot of structure to resolve that concern

This sort of anecdotal report is a great way to bring attention to what isn't being done, but it would be much more helpful to know what is being done in Qatar, given its recent local cases and deaths. 

As I understand it, Qatar is entering it's cooler months. Looking through the literature, there are not a lot of papers on respiratory viruses from Qatar. In one paper by Wahab and colleagues in 2001 in the Journal of Tropical Pediatrics, we see that HMC testing defined the peak season for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in children as November-January in Qatar (data from 1996-1998 combined, included 257 previously healthy children). 59.9% of these cases were diagnosed with bronchiolitis, 17.6% with pneumonia and 35.8% had an infiltrate in their lungs. RSV cases start rising from September though. The authors note this seasonality is similar to other temperate countries in the Gulf region. And this is just 1 virus of 200.

In another study, this year, in Archives of Virology, Althani and colleagues (Qatar University and HMC) tested 200 adults with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) across winter (October 2008 to March 2009). While virus detections were relatively few (18% of patients), most seasonal viruses were present during this period - more so in asthma than in COPD. These included rhinoviruses, HCoV-229E, NL63 and OC43, parainfluenza viruses 1-3, RSV, adenovirus, influenza B virus and human metapneumovirus.

So this rise in cases noted by the GPs above may be nothing more than the usual start to the respiratory virus season, made to look more scary because of the recent MERS-CoV outbreak. Or it may be more than that.

I believe its time to be seriously considering what local laboratory testing capacity exists on the ground in the Arabian peninsula.

If the hajj stirs up case numbers, as many suspect it will, having limited to no ability to quickly resolve a flood of potential cases will result in a management crisis. Cases will accrue quickly and "probable", rather than "confirmed" will become the word of the day while trying to prevent spread in hospital environments.

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it may be just a rhinovirus. 

Case numbers will also be added to, as they always are when surveillance is heightened for a new agent, because seasonal endemic human respiratory viruses are circulating as well and those infections cannot reliably be discriminated from mild to moderate MERS-CoV using patient observation alone. 

Currently, MERS-CoV results in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may take up to 2 weeks to turnaround (if you follow me on Twitter you will have seen this time frame suggested to me last night). 

If the cases seen by the GP today were MERS-CoV positive, they would 1st need to return with a continuing fever before being tested and then that result would be revealed either too late to reduce the risk of a transmission event, or perhaps too late to be of use in applying novel antiviral treatments on that patient.

Time is of the essence. And more testing is paramount.

Thanks to @makoto_au_japon and @dspalten for bringing this to my attention.