Lebanese American University


Fear of MERS virus grips Middle East

MarCom speaks to Dr. Jacques Mokhbat, infectious diseases and microbiology specialist at LAU Medical Center–Rizk Hospital, about the implications of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

MERS corona virus (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) first made the headlines in September 2012 when it was discovered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Alarm bells went off all over the world when documented cases were discovered in over 20 countries. To date over 800 cases of the virus have been reported, all connected to the initial outbreak. As it stands today, Saudi national health authorities have publicly declared that the epidemic is “under control” though the number of cases and deaths related to the virus continue to rise. In fact, a recent panel presentation organized by the World Health Organization described the situation as “serious.”

In Lebanon, we talk to LAU’s School of Medicine’s Associate Dean for Postgraduate Medical Education Dr. Jacques Mokhbat, a specialist in infectious diseases and microbiology at LAU Medical Center–Rizk Hospital, to understand the implications of MERS and what precautions should be taken.

MarCom: What are the symptoms of MERS? How deadly is it?

Dr. Jacques Mokhbat: Symptoms include acute respiratory illness and signs of fever, dry cough, headaches, pains and sometimes, diarrhea. In some serious cases, the disease progresses to severe respiratory distress with a dramatic drop in oxygenation leading eventually to death. As of June 4 of this year, over 800 cases of MERS corona virus have been diagnosed worldwide and about 38% of those cases have resulted in death, though some reports out of Saudi Arabia suggest this number may be an underestimation.

MarCom: The first MERS corona virus was detected in Lebanon this May, is there cause for serious concern?

Dr. Jacques Mokhbat: The diagnosed individual was a health care worker with travel history to the Arabian Peninsula and had direct contact with persons with respiratory infections. There was no secondary transmission in Lebanon. There is a chance that other cases—albeit to a limited extent—do exist, especially since there are a large number of Lebanese visitors to the Kingdom. At the same time, with increased public awareness and adequate infection control measures taken by health authorities in Saudi Arabia, the risk of transmission is reduced.

MarCom: What is the mode of transmission?

Dr. Jacques Mokhbat: The mode of transmission is vis-à-vis respiratory secretions and droplets and it can be transmitted from person to person. Therefore there is a risk of transmission through close contact (one meter) from an infected individual who is coughing or sneezing. It was first discovered in camels, but it is still unknown if they are the vector for transmission to humans.

MarCom: What, if any, prevention measures are there to counter MERS?

Dr. Jacques Mokhbat: At the present time, there are no vaccines or treatments that can prevent transmission. We can only treat the respiratory distress—with assisted ventilation and hydration of the infected individual. The WHO suggests avoiding prolonged contact with anyone with severe respiratory syndrome. Also, to prevent the spread of germs, washing hands thoroughly and regularly is vital and it is ideal to cover your nose and mouth with a disposal tissue when one coughs. Another measure is to disinfect areas that are used constantly—like door handles. Shared spaces (kitchen, bathroom) should also be well ventilated. 



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