In September 2012, an alert Egyptian doctor working in a Saudi Arabian hospital isolated a new human virus in samples taken from a man who had died of pneumonia and kidney failure. The virus came to be known as the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). By late last month, 200 laboratory-confirmed cases of people infected by the virus were reported to the World Health Organisation, with 85 deaths. Since then, however, there has been a spurt in infections, with 53 more cases and eight additional deaths being reported to the WHO. The vast majority of all MERS-CoV cases have occurred in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia accounting for a large proportion of them. The United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Yemen have also reported cases. France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Tunisia and Greece reported instances where people had been infected in the Middle East or came into contact with such infected individuals. Asia recently reported its first cases — and the first death from the virus. A 54-year-old Malaysian man appears to have caught the virus while on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia; he developed pneumonia on his return and died days later. A male nurse from the Philippines, who had been working in the UAE, was found to be carrying the virus though he did not fall sick.

India — especially States like Kerala — needs to be watchful. “Countries that have large numbers of travellers to the region, including workers, are reminded of the need for vigilance in the form of surveillance, and the importance of good infection control practices in managing patients with acute respiratory infections,” the WHO cautioned in an update last month. Unlike the swine-origin flu virus that caused the 2009 pandemic, the MERS virus does not easily spread from one person to another. But it has a high case fatality rate and its appearance here could well fuel public anxiety. That can be avoided if the Central and State governments put in place well thought-out plans for testing and surveillance as well as for dealing with any cases that turn up. Likewise, hospitals, both government-run ones and those in the private sector, need to be ready to handle patients who have the virus. In the Middle East, many infections have occurred in hospitals, and their staff members have been among those affected. Healthcare facilities dealing with MERS-CoV infections should take appropriate measures to reduce the risk of the virus passing to other patients, staff and visitors, warns the WHO. Now that the virus has reached Asia, India’s Central and State governments would do well to review their preparedness.

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