Allenby crossing
Allenby crossing Flash 90

Israeli health officials said they were keeping a close eye on the potential spread of a new virus that has been spreading throughout the Middle East, and were ready with plans to present an epidemic in Israel. The existence of the new disease, MERS – Middle East Respiratory Syndrome – has been known to scientists for some weeks, but its existence was publicized Thursday in the New York Times.

Similar to SARS, MERS spreads quickly, but is more deadly than SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. SARS has been since 2003, but there is no specific vaccine for it, and scientists said that that was likely to be true for MERS as well.

Doctors have been observing the symptoms associated with MERS in a growing number of patients for the past year, but only in the past month or so has it become clear that a specific virus was responsible. Nearly all the cases so far have been seen in Saudi Arabia, with several others seen in Gulf countries, Tunisia, and Jordan. In addition, the disease has been seen in Arab populations in Italy, Britain, and France

Many of the cases have been spread in hospitals, but doctors are not sure what the mechanism for spreading – suh as sneezing, physical contact, etc. - is. What frightens researchers is the extremely high fatality rate; out of sixty established cases, 38 people died, for a fatality rate of 65%. At its worst in 2003, the fatality rate for SARS was about 8%.

Israeli health officials said that they were increasing their vigilance at hospitals, and were preparing to isolate patients who displayed the symptoms. The officials said that due to the ongoing traffic of Arabs between Israel and Jordan, and from their to the rest of the Arab world, Israel was at a “significant risk” of experiencing an outbreak.

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