A virus that has been known to infect camels has jumped over to humans.
Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus -- or MERS has infected more than 350 people in Saudi Arabia of whom 107 have died. The first case of MERS virus in the U.S was discovered when a man in Indiana contracted the disease after visiting Saudi Arabia. Individual cases have been reported in France, U.K, Italy and a few other countries.
The MERS virus has brought back memories of another such virus known as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) which emerged in China in 2002-2003 and was carried by the civet.
The MERS virus belongs to the Coronavirus family, so named for the crown-like spikes on their surface. Coronavirus are common viruses that most people get some time in their life. Human coronaviruses usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses such as the common cold. Coronaviruses may also infect animals - usually only one animal species or, at most, a small number of closely related species.
Normally flu and other diseases spread only within one types of species. Contagious illnesses such as the MERS and SARS that spread between animals and humans are called Zoonotic diseases.
While young children, elderly and people with weak immune systems are more vulnerable, anyone can get the virus if they come into contact with infected live poultry, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and other domestic and wild animals.
Containing The Spread
Scientists believe the MERS virus jumped from camels to humans in Saudi Arabia. It is not clear whether the virus spreads from an infected animal to humans, or through animal products. Authorities in Saudi Arabia are recommending people avoid eating camel meat or drinking camel milk. While the camel itself shows very little to no symptoms, MERS virus causes fever, cough and shortness of breath in humans.
Fortunately, the MERS virus does not spread easily among humans and appears to require prolonged contact with the infected person. Epidemiologists are studying how the virus transmits from one infected person to another. For our part we can take precaution by keeping ourselves aware of illnesses, avoiding contact with animals and washing hands thoroughly and frequently.
Critical Thinking: Can you think of ways to ensure that outbreaks such as these and the Avian flu can be better managed to ensure the safety and health of people around the world?