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Is there a MERS (camel flu) threat at FIFA World Cup? What you need to know

The threat stems from the virus being zoonotic and jumping from camels to humans. Experts list preventive and treatment protocols

The MERS virus is zoonotic, jumps from camels to humans and then gets transmitted between humans. (Reuters)

With the football World Cup in Qatar attracting tourists from all over the world, experts have suggested that it can also become a breeding ground for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Doctors suggest there is reason enough to be alert. That’s because the MERS virus is zoonotic, jumps from camels to humans and then gets transmitted between humans.

According to studies, contact with an infected person, whether direct or indirect, can result in spread. Travellers to Qatar for the FIFA World Cup have been warned not to touch camels during safaris and rides. MERS is a strain of coronavirus, which originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and then eventually spread to all Middle Eastern countries. Cases were also reported in the UK. Dr Sandeep Nayar, Senior Director and HOD at BLK-Max Centre for Chest and Respiratory Diseases in New Delhi, says that there is a big fear that the virus might return again as there is an unusual influx of people into Qatar. “So those with symptoms, who are living in a cluster, are more exposed to getting immersed,” he says.

What is the MERS virus all about

Dr Neha Rastogi, Consultant, Infectious Diseases, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram, says it is a strain of coronavirus that jumped from camels to humans and now mutates with every human to human transmission. “It causes fever and classic respiratory issues, like shortness of breath and cough. There’s a dry cough and irritation in the upper throat. In occasional cases, it can also cause pneumonia-like conditions which may lead to the patient’s hospitalisation. Severe cases have also resulted in death,” she adds.

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Dr Arunesh Kumar, Head of the Pulmonology and Respiratory Medicine Department at Paras Hospital, says, “While pneumonia is prevalent, MERS patients may not always report the condition. Some have even reported diarrhoea and other gastro-intestinal symptoms.”

What measures can be taken?

Dr Rastogi says that considering that MERS belongs to a family of coronaviruses, we have to be vigilant about its reprisal. “People should get themselves screened if they have fever, cough, or shortness of breath after travelling to the Middle East. One should get tested for MERS and the RT-PCR holds good for the diagnosis.

Dr Manav Manchanda, Director and Head of the Department of Respiratory Medicine at Asian Institute of Medical Sciences, says that in the ongoing world cup at Qatar, proper screening should be done before people are allowed to go back to their respective countries. “Any patient who is reporting symptoms must be checked by authorities so that the transmission doesn’t spread across the world. However, the transmissibility of the MERS virus is a little low, so the chances of it spreading rapidly is less,” he added.

What are treatment protocols?

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There are no specific treatment guidelines for MERS and only symptomatic or supportive treatments are available. “Multiple vaccines have been tried. However, unlike COVID-19, there is no single standard vaccine available. So, for all practical purposes, keep your guard high, screen as much as possible, practise hand hygiene and follow social distancing norms,” says Dr Rastogi.

According to the WHO, “droplet precautions should be added to the standard precautions when providing care to patients with symptoms of acute respiratory infection; Contact precautions and eye protection should be added when caring for probable or confirmed cases of MERS-CoV infection; Airborne precautions should be applied when performing aerosol generating procedures or in settings where aerosol generating procedures are conducted.”

First published on: 30-11-2022 at 14:00 IST
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