There has been a lot of talk in the news about new viruses and possible pandemics, and it can all get a bit confusing. No one can predict when the next pandemic will occur, how serious it will be, or which virus it will be. However, experts carefully monitor disease outbreaks and are watching two currently-spreading viruses, the MERS and the H7N9 viruses, very closely.
Pandemic vs. Epidemic
You may hear of the words “pandemic” and “epidemic” in the news and they can be easily confused. A epidemic occurs when a virus (and it doesn’t have to be a new virus) like the influenza virus infects more people than the normal baseline in a region or part of a country. For example, the 2012-2013 flu season reached epidemic levels because a large portion of the United States had more people sick than normal.
A pandemic is even bigger than a epidemic. When officials declare a pandemic, it means that a new (or novel) virus has infected even more people and is spreading globally. In a pandemic, there are greater numbers of people sick and more deaths than in a epidemic.
Influenza pandemics generally occur three times in every century; in the last century there were three influenza pandemics which occurred in 1918, 1957, and 1968. So far in this century we have had one influenza pandemic in 2009 – the infamous H1N1 or swine flu. So what influenza pandemic is next? And when will it occur? No one knows, but let’s take a look at two possible contenders, MERS and H7N9.
MERS: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome
Although this SARS-like virus is not a influenza virus, it is being called a “threat to the entire world” by Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization.
This virus which started in the Middle East in September 2012 has now spread to Germany, France, the United Kingdom,and recently Tunisia in North Africa. This novel coronavirus recently got a new name: Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS for short.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), since April 2012, there have been 50 laboratory-confirmed cases of MERS and 30 of these cases have died. There have been some cases where close contact has resulted in human-to-human transmission, such as patients and healthcare workers in hospitals or family members becoming infected.
Dr. Chan is concerned about what this virus is capable of doing. According to ioL sciTech, when she addressed the World Health Assembly last week in Geneva she said, “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. These are alarm bells and we must respond. The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single country can manage by itself.”
This new virus comes ten years after the SARS virus that in 2003 caused more than 8,000 people to become sick and 800 people to die from SARS. Like the SARS virus, MERS is a coronavirus which causes fever, pneumonia, and difficulty breathing. The scary part is that no one knows what is causing the spread of this new virus.
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