International experts land in Abu Dhabi to investigate Mers outbreak

Health officials have invited international experts to Abu Dhabi as part of efforts to better understand Mers.

ABU DHABI // Health chiefs have invited international experts to Abu Dhabi to help them better understand the deadly Mers coronavirus.

The virus causes a respiratory illness that has killed more than 100 people worldwide, mostly in Saudi Arabia. Four new cases were confirmed in the UAE this week.

Researchers will study the virus, any possible changes within it, its genetic composition this year compared with last year and the role of carriers of the disease who display no symptoms.

Some experts have already arrived and others will be here soon. Their fields include epidemiological research, lab investigations, infection control and infectious diseases.

“For sure, this disease is new in the world and it needs a lot of research for a better understanding of it,” said Dr Farida Al Hosani, manager of the Health Authority Abu Dhabi’s communicable diseases department.

“Until now, there is no scientific evidence of what is the role of those people who have no symptoms, are completely normal but carry the virus.

“Are they going to transmit it to others or not? This is still scientifically unclear. We want to have a better understanding of whether they will be able to transmit the disease.”

Most of those who tested positive for the virus but had no symptoms cleared it naturally, Dr Al Hosani said.

The health authority is working with government institutions and leading employers to educate about Mers, and health officials have regular meetings about the virus with other countries in the Arabian Gulf and wider region.

Dr Al Hosani warned people not to spread rumours about Mers and to seek information only from official channels such as the Haad website.

Some people have spread disease prevention methods that have “no scientific basis”, she said, and other messages could cause unnecessary fear or panic.

Useless suggestions for prevention have included eating yoghurt or mixing it with garlic, taking herbal treatments or avoiding contact with certain nationalities.

Haad’s information about Mers is available in Arabic and English and there are plans to translate it into other languages such as Urdu.

“I think there is hunger to know more about the disease,” Dr Al Hosani said.

Haad announced on Sunday that six people who had mild or no symptoms but tested positive had cleared the virus and were expected to leave hospital soon. It also reported four new cases.

Symptoms of Mers include fever, coughing and shortness of breath. The disease is caused by a new strain of coronavirus first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

The number of cases increased sharply from March, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As many as 75 per cent of recently reported cases appear to be secondary, which could suggest “slightly” more human-to-human transmissions than previously seen, the World Health Organisation says.

One explanation could be that the transmission pattern has not changed, and the higher proportion of secondary cases could be attributed to inadequate infection control coupled with intensive contact tracing and screening, the WHO said.

But the possibilities of increased transmissibility or that mild cases are being missed could not be eliminated, the organisation said.

Saudi Arabia has provided information to the WHO on 138 Mers cases identified last month, and the kingdom has recorded 411 cases and 112 deaths so far, its health ministry said on Saturday. In Egypt, authorities are investigating whether a 60-year-old woman who died in Port Said had Mers. If confirmed, it would be Egypt’s first death from the virus.

The latest cases, including the four in the UAE, are not included in the WHO’s most recent tally of 261 lab-confirmed cases of Mers and 93 deaths.

The US reported its first case of Mers on Friday, in a traveller from Saudi Arabia. The US embassy in Abu Dhabi advised Americans living in or travelling to the Arabian Gulf to follow developments through the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention website.

lcarroll@thenational.ae

Published: May 5, 2014 04:00 AM

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