SARS, MERS-CoV and the need for vigilance

Posted at 05/30/2013 6:52 PM

ABOUT 10 years ago, the first severe disease of the 21st century infected thousands of people in Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia and North and South America. The physician who first identified this new disease and his 48-year-old patient died from the illness and so did the more than 700 others in countries around the world, including the Philippines.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a serious form of pneumonia first identified in 2003. It is a viral illness caused by a coronavirus called SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV) that spreads by close person-to-person contact or by other ways that are not yet full known.

SARS was first reported in Asia before spreading to some 28 countries. In the Philippines, the first reported case involved a 46-year-old healthcare worker in Toronto who arrived in Manila on April 4, 2003. While in Toronto, she embraced her mother’s roommate who was later on hospitalized with SARS. The returning OFW died 10 days later and so did her 73-year-old father who was also infected, being a close contact.

More than 300 family members, friends and healthcare workers were either hospitalized or placed in home quarantine. As a result of the outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the Philippines as having “medium” local transmission, prompting some countries to place a travel ban or restriction for those coming in and out of the country.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell said that "Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear." Fear took over businesses and people worldwide. Economies, specifically the travel, manufacturing and retail industries, suffered at the height of the global outbreak, observed then Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretary-general Ong Keng Yong.

At both the opening and closing ceremonies of the 66th World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva in late May, WHO director general Margaret Chan sounded the alarm in connection with a novel coronavirus from the same family as SARS. This novel coronavirus has so far have killed 20 people and infected 21 others.

During the WHA, the WHO announced that it considers the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) as its greatest concern at the moment. As health epidemiologists race against time to contain the spread of the novel virus, they admit that they understand too little about it compared with the magnitude of its potential threat. The novel coronavirus was first reported in the Middle East and has now entered the territories of France, Germany, Tunisia and the United Kingdom.

A major part of the ongoing disease surveillance is knowing where it comes from and how people get infected. Not knowing these urgent information would render the people around the world vulnerable to the disease. The WHO concluded that the novel coronavirus is a threat to the entire world and that this virus is something that can cause further damage if it remains uncontrolled.

Another new virus that caught the attention of health experts around the world is the avian influenza A(H7N9) virus. A WHO report made in early May disclosed that a 131 confirmed cases of human infection with avian influenza A(H7N9) virus have been reported by China National Health and Family Planning Commission and another case by the Taipei Centers for Disease Control (Taipei CDC). About 30 people have died while other cases are considered severe. Health authorities warned that influenza viruses constantly evolve and that the future of this outbreak is yet to unfold.

Both the A(H7N9) virus in China and the novel coronavirus in Middle East is a reminder for the need for vigilance against the constant threat from emerging diseases. In 2003, SARS demonstrated its ability to impact not only the health of thousands of people. SARS and similar diseases to include the 2009 flu pandemic also had consequences on the economy, movement of people and goods, and national security.

The role of the research medicines sector is crucial in helping prevent, manage and treat these emerging health threats. Through the years, the pharmaceutical sector continues with its never-ending mission to find prevention and cures for many of mankind’s diseases.

Research and development yielded thousands of medicines and vaccines that helped the people from around the world to lead healthy, more productive and longer lives amidst persistent threats from diseases.

As executive director of the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), an organization composed of research providers of life-saving medicines, the column Medicine Matters will seek to empower readers so that they may take charge of their health and the medicines they take. Relevant to this is a discussion on the long, expensive and complex pharmaceutical research and development process.

Despite R&D challenges, there are now more than 4,000 new medicines in the pipeline for non-communicable diseases alone. The column will also feature initiatives of the industry to provide greater access to medicines and healthcare in a manner that will demonstrate our commitment to corporate citizenship and adherence to high ethical standards.

The column will likewise alert readers about emerging global health threats. They may be about communicable diseases that defy geographic borders or major non-communicable diseases that have silently grown to become the world’s biggest killers. They may also be about catastrophic diseases or about neglected tropical diseases that disproportionately affect Filipinos.

But health is beyond diseases. It is about a health system that involves important building blocks such as service delivery, health workforce, information, medical products financing and governance.

Among others, health is likewise about socio-economic issues such as poverty, globalization and rapid lifestyle changes. It is also about reforms leading to Universal Health Care so that health will be a right enjoyed by all.

On behalf of PHAP and its members, I would like to express our heartfelt appreciation to abs-cbnnews.com for once again demonstrating its commitment to the health of the Filipino people.