Sunday, September 22, 2013

Threat to Entire World: How Genes Fight Against Deadly MERS Virus of Middle East

Nadene Goldfoot                                                                  

The mysterious MERS virus (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) has erupted in the Middle East's Saudi Arabia. These things travel. "Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization, is worried so much that she called it "a threat to the entire world" in a speech given in Geneva Switzerland."  So far, "Human-to-human transmission of MERS has been documented in England, France, Tunisia, Italy, and Saudi Arabia.  Researchers do not know how it is spreading.  The cause might be camels as the virus has been found in them.  

Being very interested in our genes, I'm amazed that our own immune system can detect an invading bug and that different genes are activated to fight off a viral infection.  Others fight a bacterial or fungal infection.  These tiny molecular changes happen before we even have any inkling that something is wrong with us, before we have symptoms.  Not only that, but that they form special patterns of RNA and proteins, something called a genomic fingerprint.
Duke University's researchers are working on a blood test to tell when a respiratory illness is caused by a virus or a bacterial infection.  They are trying to keep doctors from using antibiotics when it would do good except to actually harm our immune system.  Dr. Geoffrey Ginsburg is Duke's genomic medicine chief and leads the team.  They have been having a study of 102 people who have provided knowledge that the test is working.

Saudi Arabia has been hit with MERS. The first case was reported just last year on September 24th in Saudi Arabia.  It's similar to SARS.    "Reporting online in The Lancet, the scientists said they had assembled a family tree of the coronavirus causing Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), using samples taken from 21 patients in Saudi Arabia."  Camels, bat and goats are possible animals that have carried the virus to humans. "The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Thursday it had been informed of 132 lab-confirmed cases of MERS, including 58 deaths."  The hajj pilgrimage takes place next month.  The worry is that MERS can be spread from person to person.  

The virus,  SARS infected more then 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in 2003 before being brought under control.  MERS acts like the common cold and attacks the respiratory system, but with much more severe symptoms. Cough and fever can turn severe and may be followed by pneumonia and kidney failure. The WHO has also observed diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms in patients with disease.

Antibiotics do not work on viruses but only agitate our immune systems so that when we do get a bacterial infection, the available antibiotics don't work.  One needs stronger and stronger ones.  The problem is that there is a limit, and then no amount of medication helps.  

Resource:  Oregonian newspaper, 9/22/13 page Aa5, New test aims to better detect viral infections by Lauran Neergaard, AP

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