July 15, 2013 – A Georgetown expert on global viral outbreaks is helping health departments and hospitals in the Middle East and the United States prepare to fight a new deadly virus before millions of Muslims travel to Mecca in October.
Dr. Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease and public health physician, and an adjunct professor of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC), left for the Middle East on July 4 to help respond to Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS).
“MERS is SARS until proven otherwise – and it is much more lethal so far in hospitalized patients,” Lucey says, referring to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which he worked on in the early 2000s.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of July 2 MERS has killed almost 55 percent of its 62 victims in Saudi Arabia, and infected a total of 77 people in eight countries, killing 40 people (64 percent) who contracted the virus.
Ideal Breeding Ground
No cases have been reported in the United States, but a few have been in France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and the United Kingdom.
Of particular concern in Saudi Arabia is the time between Ramadan, which starts July 9 through the Muslim Hajj in mid-October.
“The Hajj is the world’s largest annual pilgrimage, when more than 3 million Muslims make there way to Mecca in Saudi Arabia,” Lucey says.
Lucey’s expertise on SARS, MERS and other infectious diseases has led him to travel to five countries – Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and France – since April to give lectures and work with hospitals on infection control.
“This disease represents a significant public health risk under the International Health Regulations …,” the World Health Organization stated in a May 28 press release. “WHO has issued recommendations for enhanced surveillance and precautions for the testing and management of suspected cases, and is working closely with countries and international partners.”
The GUMC doctor was in discussions recently with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Preparedness and Response, the District of Columbia Hospital Association, the District’s Department of Health, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other organizations about MERS.
He also has been interviewed multiple times by the Al-Jazeera news services and other Middle East media.
Driven by Memory
He says there are lessons to be learned from SARS – that hospital outbreaks are early warnings of the rise of a worrisome contagious virus, and that such a virus can easily spread through air travel.
He tells physicians that the virus can be halted by strictly observing infection-control precautions within hospitals, which is how SARS was stopped.
And Lucey stressed that he is just one of many infectious disease experts who are on the ground, helping those who may soon be medical warriors at the contagion frontline.
“I am driven by my searing memory of SARS to share what I learned,” he says.