By Steven Reinberg
THURSDAY, June 6 (HealthDay News) -- Anyone who has watched the movie "Contagion" has seen how fast a virus can spread and how deadly it can be, but is it reality?
Much like the film, a new emerging virus called the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), which kills half the people it infects, has spread from the Middle East to Europe. Since September, there have been 54 reported cases and 30 deaths, making some consider it a worldwide threat.
"Looking at the overall global situation, my greatest concern right now is the novel coronavirus," Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, told delegates at a recent meeting. "The novel coronavirus is a threat to the entire world."
Experts, however, aren't sure the virus is as big a threat as Chan believes.
"Anytime there is a new virus that has the potential to kill people, we ought to take it seriously," said Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
But while Siegel believes the virus's spread should be tracked and studied, he doubts it will ever become a real threat.
"Fear is the biggest virus going," he said. "The amount of concern is already outweighing the risk. People have seen 'Contagion' too many times."
Comparing this virus to the 2003 SARS outbreak is a mistake, Siegel said. "The SARS outbreak, although it was also a coronavirus, was overly hyped. You ended with 8,000 cases around the world and only about 700 deaths."
Every year, the flu kills more than 30,000 people in the United States alone and 500,000 around the world, he said, to put things in perspective.
When a new virus like MERS-CoV comes along, it is often very deadly, but as it spreads it becomes less so, Siegel explained.
"The fact that it has a 50 percent mortality rate means it's a very serious virus, but as viruses get out in the world more, the mortality rate usually goes down," he explained. "With SARS, it started at 50 percent and ended up at 10 percent."
The reason viruses get less deadly is simply that a virus that kills its host can't survive to infect others. "If the virus kills its host, it's much harder to spread," Siegel said.
The key question is how easily does the virus travel from one person to another. "Right now, it does not look that transmissible. Otherwise, it would have spread already more than it has," he said.
Siegel wouldn't be surprised to see MERS-CoV in the United States. "The question is how many people are getting sick," he said.
Another expert, Dr. John Treanor, chief of the department of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Rochester in New York, said that "we don't know very much about this virus, so appropriate concern needs to be taken."
However, he doesn't think people need to be particularly concerned right now. "That could, of course, change," Treanor added.
"The main driver of concern is that although it is not the same virus that caused SARS, it's from the same family and there is concern that this could end up emerging like SARS did and has the potential to cause severe disease. The advantage is that people are more prepared for this than they were for SARS and probably will do a better job of keeping it contained," he said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus was first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia and is different from other coronaviruses found in people before.
Since then, cases have been seen in Britain, France and Italy, among people who traveled to the Middle East. The latest reported case is a 14-year-old girl from Saudi Arabia, which has the most cases, according to the CDC.
Symptoms of MERS-CoV include fever, cough and shortness of breath. And while half have died, others have had a mild case, which may mean there are many unreported cases.
The disease can be spread from one person to another, particularly if they are in close contact, the CDC said. Right now there is no treatment or vaccine for MERS-CoV.
Protecting yourself from MERS-CoV is the same as protecting yourself from any respiratory disease, the CDC noted. This includes:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact, such as kissing, or sharing cups or eating utensils, with sick people.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs.