Latest reports put the figures at 51 confirmed cases of infection and 30 deaths—or a mortality rate of 60 percent. The SARS-like virus first detected in Saudi Arabia in 2012, initially named novel coronavirus or nCoV but now officially dubbed the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), has killed 24 persons in the kingdom; it has also spread to eight other countries, Italy being the latest to report a MERS-CoV infection that afflicted a 45-year-old man who had traveled to Jordan.
The other countries with reported cases of the ailment now include Jordan, Qatar, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the United Arab Emirates.
What do these countries have in common, especially those in the Middle East? They all have sizable OFW populations, with some 1.5 million Filipinos working and residing in Saudi Arabia alone. Given what is known so far of the virus—that, as pointed out by Keiji Fukuda, assistant director general for health security and the environment of the World Health Organization, “the different clusters seen in multiple countries increasingly support the hypothesis that when there is close contact this novel coronavirus can transmit from person-to-person”—Filipino workers in the kingdom and in other countries with a similar outbreak are at risk of contracting the ailment.
President Aquino must thus heed the call of the OFW group Migrante-Middle East for the Philippine government to send medical attachés to Saudi Arabia to educate the workers and prepare them for contingencies.
“There are lots of medical concerns by our fellow OFWs not only in Saudi Arabia but also in other Mideast countries. Giving them right information, education, and guidance would be of help to prevent work-related diseases,” said John Leonard Monterona, Migrante-ME regional coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, in a statement.
An information and education campaign is the least the government can do to prepare OFWs for any health emergency in their host countries. While virologist Nathan Wolfe, in a National Geographic interview, has said that there is still much to be discovered about the virus—“We do not know how MERS originated, and while human-to-human transmission has been confirmed, we do not know the precise mechanism of transmission. We still don’t know definitively what percentage of people who are infected will die (i.e., the case mortality rate)”—the rapid rate of transmission and the ease with which it has crossed borders has also left scientists like him worried.
A “threat to the entire world” was how Dr. Margaret Chan, the director-general of WHO, recently described the virus. “We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat. Any new disease that is emerging faster than our understanding is never under control,” she said.
MERS-CoV is from the same viral family as the bug behind SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the outbreak that leapt out of China and East Asia in 2003, spread to other parts of the world and eventually killed 775 people. Like SARS, the Middle Eastern virus is said to produce severe respiratory symptoms from fever and cough to pneumonia, as well as gastrointestinal symptoms and kidney failure.
It was eventually established that the SARS virus infected humans from their original animal hosts, and was spread through coughing or sneezing. In the case of MERS-CoV, Wolfe said “human-to-human transmission has been reported… particularly in cases with sustained contact such as health-care workers.”
As new cases have been reported with increasing frequency, the Philippine government must take a proactive stance and prepare for the possibility that any one or two of the millions of OFWs in the Middle East and other affected countries will not only come down with the disease but also unknowingly bring it home. Some 25,000 OFWs are deployed every month to Saudi Arabia alone. They need to be alerted to take extra precautions in their personal health and hygiene, and to keep themselves updated on new developments, health measures and warnings about the illness.
Migrante has another sensible suggestion: Make the deployment of a team or teams of medical attachés in Saudi Arabia permanent, to continuously serve the needs of the OFW population there, outbreak or no outbreak. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, it’s time for the Department of Health to put in place contingency measures, and to officially alert the public about the deadly MERS-CoV.
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