India vulnerable to deadly MERS virus, but no screening at airports yet

In just nine months between 2002 and 2003, 775 people died across the world from an acute respiratory disease that usually started with symptoms of a harmless flu.

The virus named SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) first surfaced in South China and according to Wikipedia, infected people in 37 countries within weeks. More than 8,000 people had contracted the disease which literally had no cure - antibiotics were ineffective on the virus.

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia reported cases of a similar disease in which the patient shows symptoms of influenza which worsens gradually and might lead to death. Experts have commented that the said virus comes from the same family of viruses as SARS. In Saudi Arabia alone 38 people have been reported dead from the virus within a couple of months of it being detected. A report on Fox News says:

The World Health Organisation said on Monday that 64 laboratory-confirmed cases of the disease, dubbed Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), had surfaced worldwide to date, including 38 deaths. While most of the cases have been concentrated in Saudi Arabia, the virus has also spread to neighbouring Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Cases have also been found in France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and Britain, although mainly concerning patients transferred there for care from the Middle East or who had travelled to the Middle East and become ill after they returned, the WHO said.

Representative image. AFP

Representative image. AFP

The MERS, evidently, seems capable of igniting a SARS-like outbreak again. Despite the WHO alert however, India remains vulnerable to contracting the virus, given the sheer number of people who arrive in India from infected regions everyday. According to a story on Mumbai Mirror, India is yet to take precautionary measures against the virus and has no policy in place to screen passengers to are coming from the Gulf countries. Mumbai Mirror reports:

While the government's lack of action and awareness has airline crews worried, they are also angry at their respective airlines. AICCA sources said that a noticeable number of Air India air-hostesses in the Gulf sector have taken ill in the last one week but the airline has not taken any steps to conduct thorough medical checks on them.

According to the report, approximately 1,000 people fly to India from the Gulf countries every day with several pilgrims arriving from Umrah in Saudi Arabia which has seen the highest number of deaths. The airlines too are unprepared, asking the cabin crews to take 'precautionary measures' without specifying what they could be.

Mumbai Mirror reports:

The Indian government's Airport Health Organisation, the agency entrusted with the task of screening passengers for such viruses, too said that there has not been any instructions from WHO.  "There has been no instruction from the WHO on this," said AHO's Dr PM Gaikwad.

However, though a screening system is not yet in place at the airports, the Maharashtra government has today sounded an alert across hospitals and asked hospitals to report all cases of unusual respiratory diseases to the district administration.  According to Mirror, the alert was issued after the Centre held a high level meeting and issued an advisory.

Updated Date: Jul 16, 2013 10:44 AM

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