NEWS
05/14/2014 06:39 EDT | Updated 07/14/2014 05:59 EDT

MERS not yet serious emergency, World Health Organization says

The increase in the number of MERS cases around the world isn't yet enough to make it a major public health emergency, a panel of World Health Organization experts says.

The panel members met for five hours by teleconference on Tuesday, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director general for health security with WHO, told a news conference Wednesday.

"What they reached was a consensus that the situation had increased in seriousness and urgency, but does not at this point constitute a public health emergency of international concern," he said.

Worldwide, the MERS virus has made more than 530 sick, including 145 deaths since September 2012, according to WHO. It was in late March that the 200-cases mark was crossed.

"It's pretty clear we're not seeing all of the cases, we're not hearing about all of the cases and also we're now seeing seeding from places like Saudi Arabia to other countries," Dr. Michael Gardam, director of infection prevention and control at the University Health Network in Toronto, said Tuesday.

"I think for certain parts of the world, in particular Saudi Arabia, I think now is the time given the amount of spread to other countries that they should be issuing travel advisories. That doesn't mean you say you shouldn't go there, but that they should make it very clear that there are potential concerns if you go there, and we should be looking for people coming back, especially if they have symptoms."

Symptoms of Middle East respiratory syndrome include cough, fever and sometimes fatal pneumonia. It is caused by the MERS coronavirus, a cousin of the SARS or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus that killed around 800 people worldwide after first appearing in China in 2002. Coronaviruses are also a cause of the common cold.

WHO said its assistant director general for health security, Keiji Fukuda, will hold a news conference on Wednesday to announce the conclusions of the meeting.

In Canada and the U.S., the advice to the general public remains that the threat is low and standard precautions for a respiratory virus apply, such as frequent hand washing, avoiding someone who is coughing and sneezing, and staying home when sick.

Tuesday’s announcement by health officials in Florida that two Orlando health-care workers are showing symptoms of a flu-like illness serves as a reminder for health-care workers everywhere to be on the alert for potential MERS patients, particularly in those with a travel history to the Arabian Peninsula, Canadian and U.S. doctors say.

"There’s certainly lots of business travel between our country and the Middle East, so I would actually be surprised if we don’t have an imported case or two," said Dr. Mary Vearncombe, who was in charge of infection control at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital during the SARS outbreak.

The case fatality rate for MERS is about 27 per cent, something doctors need to be careful about, Vearncombe said. Fortunately, the virus isn’t efficient at spreading person to person in households.

For health-care workers, masks, eye protection, gown and gloves are recommended when treating patients with respiratory viruses.

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