x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The right way to fight viral diseases

A new Sars-like coronavirus calls for action to establish a functioning reference virology laboratory in the UAE.

Flu epidemics are old news; almost everyone has had influenza at one time or another. But in recent years, illnesses caused by what scientists call the coronavirus family have spread from animals to humans, causing concern worldwide. Now another one of these coronavirus outbreaks is making headlines.

This one, novel coronavirus, is in some ways similar to the one that caused the Sars outbreak of 2002-03, which killed almost 800 people worldwide. This year's version is known to have sickened 33 people - 25 of them in Saudi Arabia - and 18 of those who fell sick have died.

While the numbers are small, there is always the possibility that viruses like these can suddenly begin to spread rapidly. The good news is that in recent decades, and especially since Sars, the world has learnt a lot about managing such diseases; public health practices have kept coronavirus outbreaks mainly under control. We have come a long way from the days of 1918-19, when the "Spanish flu" killed far more people than the First World War.

To be sure, there is still a lot to learn about these disease agents. This virus, for example, seems to be closest to one found in bats, where several previous outbreaks have been linked to domesticated animals. In general we need to learn why some of these viral diseases are more contagious than others.

By all accounts Saudi Arabia has handled the outbreak with the right measures so far. These include not only having and following guidelines and protocols for safe, effective testing and treatment of those infected, but also international cooperation - borders are no barriers to disease - as well as full openness of information; people want to be sure nothing is being kept secret.

As The National has reported, officials in the UAE, also, say that although there are currently no known cases here, systems are in place and the health establishment is at a high level of vigilance. That's as it should be; coronavirus scares are somewhat frequent now, and a permanent state of readiness is the only sensible public-health posture.

The UAE, it turns out, is the only GCC country without a functioning reference virology laboratory, where viruses can be positively identified. This lack calls for action; in the short term we trust that neighbouring countries would make their facilities available.