House debates

Monday, 24 June 2013


Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome

10:24 pm

Photo of John MurphyJohn Murphy (Reid, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Some may know that the federal electorate of Reid, my electorate, has one of the highest proportions of people of Middle Eastern background and also one of the highest proportions of people of the Islamic faith of any electorate in our country.

In any one year a significant number of Australian residents, including people in my electorate, travel between Australia and the Middle East for a variety of reasons including tourism, business, family matters or religious observances. Normally, these travellers make their journey without particular concern. However, anyone travelling to the Middle East this year should be aware that there is an unquantified risk of coming into contact with a dangerous respiratory infection that the World Health Organization has called Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome or MERS for short.

This disease was first reported on 24 September last year in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and is similar to SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a viral respiratory disease that was first reported in China in 2002. Between November 2002 and July 2003, an outbreak of SARS in South China and then Hong Kong nearly became a pandemic—that is, a worldwide epidemic. That outbreak, of a disease similar to MERS, was responsible for 8,273 cases and 775 deaths worldwide, a fatality rate of 9.6 per cent and now the concern is that MERS infections could follow a similar path.

The SARS virus is most likely still present in its original animal hosts and the analysis of the virus indicated a high probability that the virus, a member of the family of corona viruses, originated in bats and spread to humans either directly or through animals held in Chinese markets.

MERS appears to be a previously unknown coronavirus and was first isolated from the lungs of a 60-year-old male patient with acute pneumonia and acute kidney failure. The MERS virus may, like SARS, have its origin in bats.

An analysis of the DNA sequence of MERS, published in the March 2012 Emerging Infectious Diseases journal showed that bat coronaviruses carried by the genus Pipistrellus differed from MERS by as little as 1.8 per cent. It is possible that consumption of water that flows from caves where bats roost or the use of bat guano as a fertiliser may have led to the virus jumping the species barrier to humans.

On 13 June 2013 New Scientist reported that the World Health Organization warned:

… all countries in the world need to ensure that their healthcare workers are aware of the virus and the disease it can cause and that, when unexplained cases of pneumonia are identified, MERS-CoV should be considered.

As of 14 June, the World Health Organization stated that the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia has announced an additional three laboratory-confirmed cases, including one death with Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus.

The first patient is a 63-year-old woman with underlying medical conditions. The second patient is a 75-year-old man with underlying medical conditions. The third patient is a 21-year-old man, who died. Additionally, a previously laboratory-confirmed case has died.

Globally, from September 2012 to date, WHO has been informed of a total of 58 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection with MERS that included 33 deaths, with an average fatality rate of 56 per cent and higher amongst the elderly.

Following the First World War, an outbreak of a severe form of influenza in 1918 infected over 500 million people across the world, including many in Australia. It killed 50 to 100 million people, had a fatality rate of three to five per cent and was one of the greatest natural disasters in human history.

Given the advances in medical science over the last 95 years, the risk of a disastrous pandemic on the scale of the 1918 influenza epidemic may have been greatly reduced. That, however, is no reason to be complacent and I would strongly advise anyone who may have either travelled to the Middle East or been in contact with anyone who has been there and who then experiences symptoms including a fever, cough, expectoration, and a shortness of breath to see their doctor urgently.

House adjourned at 22 :30