Keep Your Employees Safe from the MERS Virus

By Langdon Dement August 14, 2013

As more companies send employees on global travel, it’s important for safety and health managers to have a proper infection control system. If an employee contracts an infectious disease, the possibility of spreading it throughout the company could develop into a serious problem for the employer.

For instance, between November 2002 and July 2003, an outbreak of a terrible viral respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus occurred in South China. This disease, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), was on the verge of becoming a pandemic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were 8,098 cases and 774 deaths worldwide. In general, SARS begins with a high fever and can lead to other symptoms such as headaches, an overall feeling of discomfort and body aches. The illness spread to more than two dozen countries before the 2003 outbreak was contained.

In April 2012, a new coronavirus emerged in the Middle East: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV). Formerly identified as a “novel coronavirus,” MERS-CoV is a beta coronavirus, and is different from others previously found in humans. Most individuals who get infected experience severe acute respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath, although recent data suggest mild respiratory illness might be a part of the clinical spectrum of the infection.

MERS-CoV is not caused by the same coronavirus that caused SARS, although like SARS, it is most similar to coronaviruses found in bats. Initially reported in Saudi Arabia, 46 of the 94 patients with the virus have died as of this writing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at the present time all cases have been connected to four countries in or near the Arabian Peninsula.

Although MERS-CoV has only infected individuals who have come in close contact with the disease, it is still an area of heightened focus for public health officials around the world. People from countries including the U.K., France, Tunisia and Italy were diagnosed with the illness after traveling to the Middle East. MERS-CoV has shown no evidence of sustained human transmission, but has shown limited human transmission which can still create problems. Conducting more investigations and learning more about this illness will enable researchers to figure out the source of MERS-CoV, how it spreads, and the most effective controls to prevent its spread.

On July 5, 2013, a study revealed MERS does not yet have pandemic potential. That doesn’t diminish the seriousness of this illness. MERS-CoV has killed 50 percent of the cases reported thus far, making this a serious problem. To ensure the illness does not progress, heightened surveillance, contact tracing and more research on the virus itself is required.

The WHO is forming an emergency committee of international experts to be in a position to be ready for any possibility surrounding MERS-CoV. WHO flu expert Keiji Fukuda said, “We want to make sure we can move as quickly as possible if we need to. If in the future we do see some kind of explosion or if there is some big outbreak or we think the situation has really changed, we will already have a group of emergency committee experts who are already up to speed so we don’t have to go through a steep learning curve.”

As this virus becomes more prevalent, it’s important to be aware of ways to protect employees and be aware of the symptoms of this potentially fatal illness. Educating employees about all contagious diseases, maintaining awareness of travel advisories and staying current on the number of cases and where they occur will help companies to control the spread of contagious diseases among the employee population.

To learn more and stay up-to-date with new information, check out the WHO website and the CDC Middle East Respiratory Syndrome website.

To learn how to develop an effective employee infection control program, tune in to the recorded presentation recently hosted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and UL: Employee Infection Prevention and Control.

Langdon Dement, AEP, GSP, is a safety & health specialist with UL, focusing on industrial hygiene, patient handling ergonomics and job hazard analysis.

Republished with permission. © 2013 UL. All Rights Reserved.

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