ABU DHABI // Health officials moved to reassure the public yesterday amid possible concerns over a new strain of respiratory virus.
The virus is similar to the pneumonia-like Sars, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. So far only two cases have been reported, one of them fatal, but both linked to Saudi Arabia.
Experts are monitoring the situation in the UAE, following standard guidelines recommended by the World Health Organisation.
"Any unusual strain is immediately sent to the National Influenza Centre at Al Qassimi Hospital, which reports back to the WHO," said Dr Mansour Al Zarouni, head of laboratories in Sharjah at the Ministry of Health. "This way the WHO can understand the pattern of the virus in the region and how it is evolving."
No cases have been reported to the centre and there is no need for the public to be concerned, Dr Al Zarouni said.
Both Sars and the new virus are a type of coronavirus, similar to influenza. However, there is no specific immunisation against either Sars or this strain of the virus.
Authorities in the United Kingdom informed the WHO on Saturday of a patient with acute respiratory syndrome with renal failure.
The 49-year-old Qatari had travelled to Saudi Arabia before becoming ill. He was admitted to an intensive care unit in Doha and later transferred to the UK by air ambulance. The strain of the virus was similar to that of a fatal case this year of a 60 year-old Saudi national.
The timing of the incident is of particular concern with the Haj pilgrimage next month. In 2010, more than 6,000 Haj pilgrims travelled to Saudi Arabia from the UAE.
Yesterday, the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi announced this year's Haj vaccination programme, which provides free haj immunisation in 37 healthcare facilities. Vaccinations include the quadruple meningococcal vaccine, which protects against meningitis and seasonal influenza, and the pneumococcal vaccine.
Dr Fatma Al Attar, head of preventive medicine at Dubai Health Authority, said the authority was collaborating with the Ministry of Health and following the actions of the WHO and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
She said the authority continued to carry out awareness campaigns advising people which vaccinations to obtain before Haj. Mandatory vaccines include those for menococcal meningitis and influenza, and pneumococcal vaccinations for those with low immunity.
"This year we will also include information about this virus and the precautions they need to take to protect their health," Dr Al Attar said. "There are many types and subtypes of flu viruses and the flu vaccine will not provide protection for all these viruses."
Coronaviruses include the virus that causes the common cold as well as Sars. Most coronavirus infections go undiagnosed and the disease is self-limiting, Dr Al Attar said.
"This means that patients may only need fever medication, such as paracetamol, and the symptoms go away in five to seven days," she said. "Therefore most cases go undiagnosed because the person may not even need to seek medical advice."
Those with low immunity, including children under 5, adults over 65 and people with chronic diseases, are more prone to serious symptoms, Dr Al Attar said.
Dr Mamunur Malik, a medical officer in the epidemic and zoonotic disease division of communicable diseases at the WHO's regional office, said the agency was not recommending any travel restrictions and the source of infection remained unknown.
"It could be possible that these strains were causing minor illnesses before, which were not detected because they would recover on their own," he said. "We are still at a stage of collecting more information."
Dr Malik said the WHO was monitoring the situation.
A representative from Al Shahba, a travel agency in Sharjah that offers Haj and Umrah services, said they were unaware of the incident and that no health requirements had changed.
In addition to clinical findings, a patient's history is key to identifying the infection, said Mohamad Hamad, infection control manager at Lifeline Hospital in Abu Dhabi.
"Anyone who has been to a country where there has been a known outbreak is advised to stay at home for 72 hours to ensure they are in the clear," he said. "The incubation period for Sars can be anywhere from two to seven days."
Those who have knowingly come in contact with an infected individual are advised to seek treatment immediately. Direct contact is defined as coming within 1.5 metres of an infected person, he said.
Once an infection is confirmed, a hospital must alert the health authority in their emirate. The patient will undergo isolation procedures, including wearing a face mask and a hospital gown and gloves.
However, Mr Hamad said the virus, which thrives in a warm and moist environment, was unlikely to survive in the hot and dry GCC climate.
"The virus is not likely to survive beyond three hours in this environment," he said. "That is, of course, generally speaking and not referring to people who have been in direct contact with infected individuals."