Fábregas: Vigilance, not panic, is right approach for MERS outbreak |

Fábregas: Vigilance, not panic, is right approach for MERS outbreak

Luis Fábregas

Every time a lethal virus like MERS turns up, some of us jump to conclusions: “Uh-oh. This is it. We’re all going to die.”

And who can blame us? The headlines about the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome have been pretty dire. “MERS outbreak becomes more urgent.” “CDC posts MERS warnings at U.S. airports.”

Some TV networks dug up decade-old video of people in China walking around with masks during an outbreak of SARS, a serious form of pneumonia. Overblown? Maybe. But let me pause right here to tell you that sometimes I’ve longed for one of those masks. A few years ago on a plane to Chicago, I sat next to a woman who would not stop coughing. I could feel the germs crawling on my shirt. I desperately wanted one of those masks and was very happy when she finally fell asleep and stopped coughing.

Thankfully, I didn’t get sick following the cough-fest. But I’ve heard about plenty of people who seem to fall ill soon after traveling on a plane. No wonder seasoned travelers say planes are petri dishes with wings.

True as that may be, do we need to panic about MERS? Is it really the end of the world?

“We live in a planet of viruses and bacteria, and there are always diseases that are emerging,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at UPMC, told me. “Infectious diseases are always going to be with us.”

In other words, MERS isn’t the first big bad virus and most likely won’t be the last. In the past century, scientists have confronted smallpox, polio and pertussis, to name a few. Many have been almost wiped out, and some continue to be a threat in some countries, such as polio, which is re-emerging in places like Syria.

Those illnesses have given us a broader understanding of what we’re up against. It has taken decades for scientists to unravel the mysteries of HIV, an illness that often takes years to develop and produce symptoms. But therein lies the need to dig deeper into these worrisome illnesses. What we learn about one can help us when we’re faced with the next one.

As Adalja said, the emergence of MERS triggers questions about how well the medical and scientific communities are able to respond to these situations and how quickly they can drum up a solution.

By all means, it looks like everyone has moved swiftly to deal with MERS, which originated in Saudi Arabia. In a matter of days, we learned that the virus has spread quickly since March and has made it to the United States and six other countries. There have been two confirmed cases in the U.S., both involving people with ties to Saudi Arabia.

We’ve also learned that MERS has not been classified as a global health emergency. Even so, U.S. airports began posting signs about MERS (though not our own Pittsburgh International).

I view those signs as a way to stay vigilant, not a reason to panic. The signs, after all, encourage people to “wash your hands often” and “avoid close contact with sick people,” steps we should be embracing regardless of MERS.

We tend to panic when we hear about these illnesses with fancy names and see pictures of foreigners walking around with masks. But the truth is the human species is constantly bombarded by bacteria, viruses and fungi. It’s impossible to guard them all off.

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media’s medical editor. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or [email protected].

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.