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