MERS UAE Family 20131202

An undated electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases shows novel coronavirus particles, also known as the MERS virus, colorized in yellow. (Canadian Press)

There have been approximately 571 documented cases of MERS, Middle East respiratory syndrome, around the world, but the deadly virus has not made it to Toronto.

But local doctors still need to be aware of signs, symptoms and treatments. For that, there is Figure 1, a Toronto-made app allowing doctors to immediately post, search and comment on medical photographs while on their iPhones or tablets. Limited to verified doctors, it blacks out a patient's distinguishing features and allows physicians to share cases with their colleagues. It's like Instagram for doctors.

And this weekend, a photo of an X-ray of a patient with MERS appeared in the application.

The photo came as a surprise to Joshua Landy, an internal medicine and critical care physician and the founder of Figure 1.

"Our surprise quickly turned to reflection, though, as we realized that Figure 1 was playing a role in educating health-care professionals about MERS and how it’s spreading," he writes in a blog post.

MERS is a viral respiratory illness first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. A coronavirus cousin of MERS caused the 2003 SARS outbreak — which had a profound effect on Toronto.

As of May 14, the virus has resulted in 571 laboratory-confimed cases that have been reported to the World Health Organization. There had also been at least 145 deaths since September 2012, according to the WHO.

Most people infected with the MERS virus develop severe acute respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath. So far, about  25 to 30 per cent of them have died, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some patients have described it as a mild respiratory illness, so doctors need to be able to differentiate it and diagnose MERS early — which is where Landy hopes Figure 1 can make a difference.

Already the photo of the X-ray has spurred a discussion among medical professionals on how to identify MERS.

"Health-care professionals on Figure 1 are educating each other about this latest health trend at a faster rate than older methods of dissemination could hope to attain," says Landy. "They are moving information faster than the virus itself can move."