May 19, 2014 12:30 PM

Author: Office of Public Affairs

The deadly virus known as MERS has reached the U.S., but experts say there’s no reason to worry.

MERS, short for Middle East respiratory syndrome, is a viral illness that is similar to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). Symptoms of MERS include fever, cough and shortness of breath. It spreads from person to person through close contact, and there is no cure. There have been 538 laboratory-confirmed cases of MERS, according to the World Health Organization, and roughly 30% of those patients have died.

The first U.S. case or MERS was diagnosed in Indiana in early May, and that patient has fully recovered. A second case was identified in Orlando, Florida, and now the first case of MERS trasmitted on American soil has been confirmed in Illinois. That patient met with another patient who had contracted the illness, but was not showing symptoms. Both are now being treated.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Both imported MERS cases are health-care workers who recently worked in and traveled from Saudi Arabia,” where the majority of MERS cases have originated. Other Arabian Peninsula countries where MERS has origins are United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen and Lebanon. Cases linked to travelers have been confirmed in United Kingdom, France, Tunisia, Italy, Malaysia, Turkey and the U.S., the CDC reports.

Are Americans at Risk?

“At this stage, it hasn’t been spreading very rapidly,” says Sankar Swaminathan, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

In fact, people who have not traveled to affected areas needn’t worry, the CDC says.

Swaminathan says at-risk individuals are those who have recently traveled to the Middle East, or those who have cared for, or live with, an infected person. The Florida patient’s family has been quarantined, and health officials are contacting roughly 500 travelers who may have come into contact with the patient, ABC News reports.

Individuals at risk should talk to their doctors if they develop respiratory symptoms or a fever within two weeks of exposure.

For the general population, the likelihood of contracting MERS is very low.

“One should always take general precautions. Wash hands frequently, and don’t touch your nose or mouth,” Swaminathan says.

Don’t be alarmed if more U.S. cases of MERS are reported. Officials at the CDC expect additional cases to be imported to the U.S. from the Middle East, and they say they are prepared. Largely through improved public health response during the 2003 SARS outbreak, much was learned about how to contain infectious diseases during an age of international travel.


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