A new threat is spreading through the Far East. It is an invisible, unpredictable and misunderstood killer that has already claimed its first victims. While in Sierra Leone and Guinea the cases of Ebola are dangerously increasing again, South Korea is the outbreak of Mers, a new epidemic. At the moment, at least 122 people have been infected and more than 3 thousand 800 have been put in isolation as a preventive measure, enough to trigger the alarm inside and outside the country, with the OMS ready to intervene to prevent the spread of the disease. Ten victims claimed at the moment. The last one is a 65-year-old man, who contracetd the virus while in hospital, where he was receiving treatment for his lung cancer. The scenario is similar to the one of 2003, when 299 died of SARS just in Hong Kong. And there were those who spoke of a new “Spanish flu”, like the one that struck Europe during the years of the First World War. The similarity with the severe acute respiratory syndrome is concerning everyone- The disease attacks the lungs and is originated by a coronavirus, the Mers-Cov. The acronym stands for “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome”, since the first case was detected in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. The host organism would be the one of the camel, one the most common animals in those geographic areas, but most of the nearly 2 thousand cases of infection registered in these areas, occurred by direct contact from person to person. The virus, then, “has jumped over” – to avoid the disease is no longer enough to stay away from quadrupeds with hump.
Twenty-five countries have recorded at least one case; among them there are US, Filppine, Malaysia, Greece and even Italy. The most impressive records situation, however, is between China and Korea, where the alert is at the highest level. The patient zero was a 68-year-old man, who had returned from a trip in the Arabian Peninsula. The man fell ill after returning to the country, and visited several hospitals and clinics, before the infection was diagnosed. So, he may have come into contact with many people and hospitals, which are considered the major source of infection. Despite the number of dead people is still low, the mortality rate observed is about 37%, therefore higher than that estimated for the Sars (which was around 15%). Typical symptoms are easily confused with the ones of the common cold: fever, cough, shortness of breath which can lead to pneumonia, but also, in severe cases, gastrointestinal disorders and kidney failure. But in some cases the disease had no specific symptoms: the patient died without warning.
People most in danger are the elderly, the immunocompromised, the chronically ill. However, the real problem is another: we know little or nothing about MERS. There is no vaccine, nor a prophylaxis: survival depends on the strength of the person infected and on immediate therapy. Even the infection process is not yet perfectly understood: it is believed to be trasmitted not through the air, but through direct contact. So prevention can be an important weapon to prevent the spread of the disease. Hygiene, use of masks and proper disinfection procedures – especially for health workers – are recommended practices. In the Middle East, the OMS is trying to discourage people, especially the poor ones, to drink camel urine.
What we are most afraid of is not just the mortality rate, but the mistery linked to the origin and the infection process of MERS. Hong Kong has advised against unnecessary travel to South Korea. A measure that the World Health Organization, however, considered excessive. Yesterday an area inside a metro station next to a clinic in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory was closed because a woman, returning from South Korea, showed symptoms of cold. Taiwan and Japan have scheduled limitations for people coming from South Korea and showing symptoms. The South Korean authorities are trying to limit the alarmism. But the president Park Geun-hye has been forced to cancel the trip to the United States, scheduled for the period between 14 and 18 June. Moreover, abot 2,000 schools remained closed all over the country.
But the damage is not only social. Economy is suffering from the contagion too. It was a very serious blow to the exportations, so serious that South Korea’s central bank cut the key interest rate, lowering it to an unprecedent 1.5%. “A rate cut was needed to ease the impact of Mers, which has increased downside risks to our growth trajectory amid slowing exports,” the governor of the institute said. Not mentioning the impact on tourism, with over 54 thousand visits deleted. All this caused by a small, lethal and mysterious enemy.
Translation provided by Maria Rosaria Mastropaolo