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Why MERS Virus is So Scary

Author: Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health
May 31, 2013
cnn.com

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The head of the World Health Organization warned the world this week of a new virus, awkwardly dubbed MERS-CoV, found in Saudi Arabia."Looking at the overall global situation, my greatest concern right now is the novel coronavirus," Margaret Chan said, calling it "a threat to the entire world."

"We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat," the director general said in her closing speech to the 66th session of the World Health Assembly. "Any new disease that is emerging faster than our understanding is never under control.

"These are alarm bells and we must respond. The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself."

With just 49 cases of the new disease reported since June 2012, it may seem puzzling that Chan named the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus -- MERS CoV or MERS for short -- the greatest threat to world health today.

But Hong Kong-born Chan can be forgiven a strong reaction. After all, she managed the response to SARS there in 2003, and MERS is a close genetic cousin. At least 8,000 people in 30 countries contracted SARS in 2003; 774 died of the disease.

No doubt her sense of urgency also stems from the apparently high mortality rate: To date, 27 of the 49 people who have caught the disease have perished, or 52%. Although the majority of illnesses have been in the Saudi Arabia, cases have emerged in seven countries.

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