WHO urges India to be vigilant against deadly 'camel virus'

WHO urges India to be vigilant against deadly 'camel virus'

A new virus has shaken Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and is now creeping closer to India. A relatively new lethal 'camel virus' technically called the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Corona Virus or MERS has taken a huge toll on the confidence of the South Koreans.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged India to be vigilant about a possible attack by the virus that is spreading fast.

Top WHO official Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director of WHO (South-East Asia Region), New Delhi urged India 'to enhance surveillance for severe acute respiratory infections, focus on early diagnosis, and step up infection prevention and control procedures in health-care facilities'.

She triggered an alarm by saying, "Strong health systems using strict infection control measures would be the key to prevent the spread of the virus and protect healthcare workers and others."

In South Korea the epidemic continues. Seoul's economy, considered the fourth largest in the world with an annual GDP of USD 845 billion, is taking a hit because of the tinniest creatures of the world.

This new pathogen is very similar to the virus that causes the 'common cold' yet so deadly that almost a third of the patients infected with this new virus have died. No specific treatment or a vaccine is available against this new disease.

Many people on the streets of Seoul are wearing surgical masks, such was the demand that chemist shops ran out of supplies. When one lands at the airport, special screening procedures and a health quarantine facility screen all incoming passengers.

A high-level panel of the WHO convened to assess this current emergency pointed to several factors that could led to the outbreak, which included a lack of awareness among health care workers and the general public about MERS; a suboptimal infection prevention and control measures in hospitals; close and prolonged contact of infected MERS patients in crowded emergency rooms and hospital wards with many beds to a room; the custom of many visitors or family members staying with infected patients in the hospital rooms facilitated secondary spread of infections among contacts.


These conditions are all too familiar for us in India so it is a surprise that the virus has still not spread to India so far, since huge numbers of workers travel to the Middle Eastern countries. It is estimated that they send remittances of over USD 10 billion annually to India but thankfully none have brought home the deadly new virus.

In the midst of the rising epidemic, I was to visit Seoul, for participating in the 9th World Conference of Science Journalists and it was my teenage son who alerted me about the threat of the epidemic and asked me to carry facemasks.

Not, unduly concerned, I decided to heed the advice of the WHO to proceed without fear since there was no spread of the virus within the wider community but was restricted specifically only to infected hospitals of Seoul.

In the 21st century, new viruses are popping up with impunity, from the SARS virus in 2002; Swine Flu in 2009; Bird Flu in 2013; and Ebola in 2014 and now the latest Asian outbreak of MERS in 2015. Globalisation is also helping the spread of viruses to new parts of the world at unforeseen speeds.

Fortunately, for India the deadly camel virus has not found its way into the country despite the huge population of over 6 million expatriate workers earning a living in the Gulf countries -- the epicentre of the MERS virus. There have been fears that the MERS virus could find its way to India through pilgrims returning after the Haj pilgrimage later.

This deadly virus was inadvertently imported into South Korea on May 20 and since then over 160 cases have been reported with at least 24 people losing their lives. The country's best known hospital -- the Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul with nearly 2000 beds and treating almost 8000 patients a day has almost been shut down as it became the epicentre of the Korean MERS epidemic.


This high-tech facility comparable to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) of New Delhi failed to take suitable and necessary precautions and became the hot bed for new infections in South Korea. A worker returning from Bahrain brought in the virus to South Korea and then through a series of blunders by the hospital staff the virus seems to have taken a hold in this bustling city of 10 million people.

An infected person develops common symptoms like a cough, has fever a shortness of breath with a sensation of vomiting and in severe cases it causes a pneumonia and kidney failure. Recording the medical and travel case history is crucial in trying to diagnose the disease.

Viruses are often described as 'a piece of bad news wrapped up in a protein', and these are so small that world's best microscopes are used to view them. These tiny creatures are so smart that they commandeer the life support systems of human cells to literally make it to dance to their tunes.

The original host of MERS virus is supposed to be camels and in 2012, it first showed up in Saudi Arabia and since then over 1200 cases have been reported worldwide and about 500 people have died because of this new infection. The virus has a high mortality rate of 36 per cent.

In Seoul, it was the crowded conditions of the emergency rooms and a failure to adhere to standard safety precautions when dealing with a highly infectious disease led to its rapid multiplication. A peculiar habit of Koreans called 'doctor shopping' where patients hop from facility to facility and from doctor to doctor seeking second opinions exacerbated the situation.

Most of the infected are people who have come in direct contact of the infected patient at a point when the person is suffering from severe sickness conditions. It has been puzzling doctors as to why new infections were taking place only in hospital settings, said Sung-Han Kim, an Associate Professor, Department of Infectious Diseases, Asan Medical Center, Seoul who added that 'patients are non-infective in the two week incubation period but become infective only when the symptoms become so severe that the patients need urgent medical attention'.

While little is known about the new disease, it is suggested that the viral load in severely infected patients becomes so high that they can easily transmit the disease to care givers and hence medical workers in South Korea were the new foci of infections.

The WHO in its assessment expressed that this outbreak in South Korea 'is a wakeup call and that in a highly mobile world, all countries should always be prepared for the unanticipated possibility of outbreaks of this, and other serious infectious diseases'.

Is India's health ministry taking suitable precautions? At least at the Indira Gandhi International Airport none were visible, even though the alarm has been sounded.

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