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Health authorities on alert as MERS death toll grows

Health authorities from around the world are monitoring an outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS) that has so far claimed more than 40 lives and left dozens more seriously ill.

As at late last week, 80 laboratory-confirmed cases of the SARS-like illness had been identified in eight countries, though Saudi Arabia is at the epicentre of the outbreak, accounting for 80 per cent of all diagnoses.

No cases of the illness – which has so far killed 44 people worldwide – have yet been reported in Australia, but health authorities internationally are on alert for the possible widespread transmission of the disease when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and visitors descending on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries during the holy month of Ramadan begin to return home late this month or in early August.

There are even greater fears that the annual Hajj pilgrimage – which draws millions of travellers from around the world to Saudi Arabia in October – could see the disease appear in dozens of countries.

The World Health Organisation has reported clusters of outbreaks of MERS, confirming that it can be transmitted person-to-person, though there are doubts about just how easily communicable the disease is.

Most of those who have so far contracted the disease, which is a serious respiratory tract infection characterised by symptoms including fever, cough and breathing difficulty, have been middle aged with underlying conditions.

This has made it more difficult to identify symptoms of the illness. For example, many who have contracted it have suffered renal insufficiency or failure, but clinicians are unsure whether this was caused by the disease or was part of underlying conditions that made patients vulnerable to the infection in the first place.

So far, 38 people in Saudi Arabia have died after contracting MERS, but officials are still yet to identify the source of the infection.

Health experts believe the disease may have jumped species, and investigations are centring on a bat colony discovered in an abandoned village in the country’s remote southwest, according to the New York Times.

But, in an update released late last month, the Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA) warned that bats may not be the immediate source of infection.

“It is unlikely that many of the patients had contact with bats, and the possibility that a single spill-over event occurred to an intermediate animal host species, subsequently leading to human infections, is more likely,” DoHA said.

It said phylogenetic data indicated the first human was infected in 2011, though the first confirmed death from the disease was not until June last year.

Although there have as yet been no confirmed cases in Australia, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Baggoley has held a teleconference with peak medical bodies to inform them of the infection, and Commonwealth, State and Territory health authorities are working together to monitor the situation.

The Department said test kits suitable for diagnosing MERS are available, if required, and further information on the disease for patients, GP, labs and public health workers at www.health.gov.au/MERS-coronavirus.

The Communicable Diseases Network of Australia has recommended that tests for MERS should be conducted on patients with pneumonia who have recently lived in, or travelled to, the Arabian Peninsula, as well as those who have been in close contact with them.

But at this stage travellers are not being advised to cancel plans to visit the area.

Adrian Rollins