MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is a newer, potentially deadly, respiratory virus.
What is MERS?
MERS, also known as MERS-CoV or Middle East Respiratory Virus, is a coronavirus that was recognized in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It causes “severe acute respiratory illness”, with symptoms such as shortness of breath, fever, and cough. 30% of the MERS cases have been lethal. At first, the virus was just located around the Arabian Peninsula, but global travel has allowed it to spread to Europe, Asia, and the United States.1 MERS is a “close cousin of the deadly SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus”. SARS killed 774 people worldwide and infected 800 people in 2003. MERS works differently than SARS in that it does not yet appear to spread as easily. Coronaviruses are known to infect animals as well. It seems to spread from “close contact”, so healthcare workers and family members are most at risk. It doesn’t seem to spread in public settings. MERS has infected camels, but officials are uncertain as to whether or not camels are the source. It is possible animals have played a role in how the virus has spread. MERS is dangerous for patients with compromised immune systems or pre-existing conditions.2
An American Case
The first American case of MERS was in a Munster, Indiana man, in April 2014. He practiced health care in Saudi Arabia, traveled through London, and returned to his home via Chicago. In Munster, the patient reported symptoms and was placed in isolation at the hospital. The CDC monitored the healthcare workers that had contact with the patient, and worked to get in touch with passengers who traveled with that man.3 He is in recovery from his flulike symptoms. He did not require a ventilator, but he had initially been on oxygen. The hospital was able to track which healthcare workers were in contact with the man, and although the workers all tested negative for the virus, they were placed on “home isolation” and told to wear masks if they went out. There is a 14-day incubation period for this virus. Although it is unknown exactly how the virus spread, scientists feel it requires contact with bodily fluids.4 Not all of the people who contract MERS get sick, but it can still be a deadly virus. The main concern for scientists is that “the virus might mutate to become more infectious”. At this time, the central location for most of the MERS infections is still the Middle East.5
Prevention and Treatments
There is no vaccine at this time. There is not a cure yet for MERS, although symptoms can be treated. As with any virus, the CDC recommends avoiding sick people when traveling and washing hands often. If soap and water are unavailable, a hand sanitizer (alcohol-based) is an alternative. Travelers should be aware of any symptoms they might develop, especially if they have traveled to MERS-infected countries within 14 days. Symptoms to note include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.6 The CDC has been prepared for MERS to come to the U.S. and had launched an “awareness campaign with hospitals and doctors”. As the Indiana state health commissioner, Dr. William VanNess said, “MERS picked the wrong hospital, the wrong state, the wrong country to try to get a foothold”.7 In May of 2014, there were confirmed cases of MERS in Florida and Illinois.8,9