It’s beginning to feel like SARS revisited.
For some of the scientists and doctors who helped the world battle the 2003 SARS outbreak, the recent rapid rise in human infections in several Middle Eastern countries caused by a cousin virus is creating a sense of sharp unease.
Cases of Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome — MERS — have shot up markedly in the past month, driven it appears by outbreaks in hospitals or among health-care workers in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.
"It does kind of bring flashbacks to SARS when we're seeing more health-care associated infections. Obviously that was a big challenge here in Toronto," says Dr. Kamran Khan, an infectious diseases physician at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital who specializes in using airline traffic data to predict the international movement of diseases.
In late March the global total of confirmed MERS cases crossed the 200 mark, two years after the first known infections occurred. By late Saturday, the combined global count announced by the World Health Organization and national governments was closing in on 290 cases.
If all are confirmed, it will mean 28 per cent of all MERS cases will have been reported in the last month.
This week has also brought word that an event many dread but see as inevitable has again happened. MERS has spread from the Middle East to other countries.
A nurse who was infected in the UAE travelled home to the Philippines where he and several of his local contacts were promptly put into isolation. And a Malaysian man who went to Mecca to perform Umrah, a Muslim pilgrimage, was infected and died upon his return to Malaysia. Authorities from the Philippines and Malaysia were tracking down people who were on the flights those men took.
On Saturday, Greece announced it had discovered its first MERS case, in a Greek national who has been living in Jeddah, one of the current MERS hotspots.
Like embers flying off a raging bonfire, these types of travel cases will continue to happen, Khan predicts.
"Just from the standpoint of probabilities, the longer this persists, the likelihood of it showing up in other regions of the globe and causing some of that disruption — that health, that economic disruption — is going to increase."