Monday, 9 March 2015

MERS in the UAE...

Over my weekend, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in Germany reported that they had a Middle East respiratory syndrome case (65 year old returning German) under their care, imported from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).[1,2]

There have been two other MERS cases hospitalized in Germany - 1 from Qatar and the other originating from the UAE, where infections are presumed to have been acquired.

This latest case is nothing astonishing but it does act as a warning that there most likely are other MERS cases circulating in the UAE. Alternatively, this person may have visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) before travelling to Germany, acquiring an infection there. 

When cases emerge in other countries they can be very telling. They speak of what might be happening in the host country. The UAE has only reported (this is the important word for any outbreak observation) a single case since July last year. Was RKI just "lucky" to pick up the only other MERS-CoV case in the UAE over the past 8 months? Highly doubtful. In the absence of other information (WHO detailed data will surely follow soon), it is much more likely that MERS-CoV is circulating in the UAE, as it is in the KSA and possibly neighbouring countries, but that cases are going either undetected or unreported.

When animals were described alongside human cases.
Click on graph to enlarge.
Taken from MERS number page.
Current MERS-CoV circulation would be in keeping with the popular theory that MERS is a seasonal zoonosis (animal infection that spills over to humans causing disease on occasion), and that more primary human cases, although still relatively rare, emerge during periods when more infections are occurring in camels - which seems to occur around this time of year. That seasonality in camels has not really been established yet and still it is one popular theory among those who do not completely deny any involvement of camels in MERS whatsoever. Also worth repeating is that MERS-CoV appears to be inefficient at transmitting between people - at least so far as the testing done to date has revealed.

From the rare spillover cases acquired by humans from camels, humans proceed to do the lion's share of the work in continuing to spread MERS-CoV among humans. Yay us. 

In recent WHO disease outbreak news reports [3,4], the detailed information reveals multiple instances of cases having shared wards with laboratory-confirmed MERS-CoV cases - and despite assurances that the same healthcare workers did not attend both people, some form of contact has apparently occurred somewhere, somehow. The precise details of what that contact was, still seem to be beyond the capacity of the Saudi disease detectives to capture. But in that detail lies some important hospital (or community) transmission clues - even if those clues are as simple as revealing that the wring question are being asked, too few contacts are being tested, healthcare workers movements are not being tracked sufficiently, or finding that people (patients, contacts and healthcare workers) do not answer the question fully. 

A little thing called infection prevention and control is apparently still not being adequately adhered to in some parts of the region. 

In other words, MERS is a rare but preventable disease.


  1. Flutrackers post
  2. Robert Koch Institute [German]