Canada’s public health agency says the risk posed by MERS remains low despite the U.S. reporting its first apparent transmission of the new coronavirus between people.
Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which surfaced in Saudi Arabia in September, 2012, has not been detected in Canada, but three cases of the SARS-like virus have emerged in the United States. The most recent infection involves an Illinois man who may have contracted the virus from an Indiana man, the first MERS case reported in the U.S.
The Indiana resident, who recently returned home from working in health care in Saudi Arabia, was admitted to hospital this month. Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suspect the virus may have spread during a 40-minute business meeting where the pair shook hands.
The Illinois resident did not require medical treatment and is feeling well. Health officials stressed they don’t believe the case suggests the virus is spreading more easily among people. Scientists have linked most human cases of MERS to camels.
In Canada, more than 3,000 individuals have been screened for MERS, which can cause coughing, fever, shortness of breath and pneumonia. The Public Health Agency’s national microbiology laboratory has diagnostic tests available that can rapidly detect the virus, noted spokesman Stéphane Shank.
“The risk to the general Canadian public remains low,” Mr. Shank said in an e-mail.
The World Health Organization has reported 572 cases of MERS, including 173 deaths. With a death rate of about 30 per cent, MERS is proving far more fatal than SARS, which had a death rate of 10 per cent and killed about 800 people worldwide. Forty-four of those deaths were in Canada.
Richard Schabas, Ontario’s former chief medical officer of health, believes the province is better prepared to deal with emerging viruses as a result of its experience with SARS.
“We’ve learned to ask the crucial questions,” said Dr. Schabas, medical officer of health for Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Health Unit. “Ninety-five per cent of your protection against a disease like MERS is to ask the right questions: Have you been to Saudi Arabia or do you have a close family contact who has been to Saudi Arabia and come home sick?”
Those questions are being asked at Mount Sinai Hospital, said Allison McGeer, head of infection control at the Toronto hospital. If MERS is suspected, the patient is moved to a private room in the emergency department and health workers take extra precautions, such as wearing masks, face shields, gloves and gowns.
Dr. Schabas doesn’t believe the latest U.S. MERS case will prompt Canadian health officials to alter monitoring and preparedness efforts. Neither does Dr. McGeer.
“At the moment for Canadians, the risk is obviously really, really small,” she noted. “This is a disease in which all of the primary cases have been in the Arabian peninsula, most of them in a single country.”