MERS Coronavirus: Contagious, Deadly and in the US

MERSMiddle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) Coronavirus is a contagious, sometimes deadly, respiratory illness that was first identified in the Middle East in 2012, and is now in the United States. The virus that is believed to have come from camels, and possibly bats, belongs to the same family of viruses as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the common cold. Symptoms include cough, fever, chills, muscle aches, gastrointestinal symptoms, respiratory distress, and in more severe cases the virus can result in the development of pneumonia and kidney failure.

The two men who are believed to have brought MERS to the U.S. are healthcare professionals who worked in hospitals in Saudi Arabia where patients with the virus were being treated. The first man with a confirmed case of MERS in the U.S. was treated in an Indiana hospital and released last week to home isolation. It does not appear that he has infected anyone else, though certain family members and healthcare workers who were in close contact before the MERS virus confirmation, will be tested and isolated for 14 days. The man told officials that he did not recall having made contact with any MERS patients in the Riyadh Hospital where he worked. This raises more questions about the possibilities of unknown transmissions of the mysterious virus.

On May 12, the second case of the virus was confirmed in the other healthcare worker, a 44-year-old-man, who began feeling ill while on flights traveling to the U.S. The Saudi resident who works at a hospital in Jeddah, appeared at the emergency room of Dr. Phillips Hospital in Orlando, Florida for treatment on May 8. He had also been at the Orlando Regional Medical Center to accompany a friend who was having a medical test there three days earlier. He is currently doing well with only a low fever and a slight cough.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is tasked with tracking down family members and certain passengers on the four separate flights that the man traveled on, while making his way to the U.S. The agency is optimistic that no other cases will arise from the contact during his travel, but in order to ensure that the virus does not quietly spread, the CDC insists precautions must be taken. Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC claims that the risk to the general public is still low and “It’s out of an abundance of caution that we want to contact everybody on the flights.”

On May 1, the Saudi man flew from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to London, England. From there he flew to Boston, then to Atlanta, and finally to Orlando. The CDC will contact only those passengers who were sitting near the patient for an extended period of time, which amounts to hundreds of people. The man had only just begun to feel sick with chills, fever, and a slight cough on the first flight, and was still not feeling bad enough to seek medical attention immediately upon his arrival in Orlando. CDC officials agree that the chances that he infected others during his travels is highly unlikely. There is no documented case of a person becoming infected with the MERS virus by “casual contact,” such as sitting next to someone on an airplane.

Since the man’s arrival in the U.S. with the contagious and possibly deadly MERS Coronavirus, many healthcare workers have been exposed to it. Five healthcare professionals from Orlando Regional Medical Center, and 15 from Dr. P. Phillips Hospital are being tested for the virus and have been instructed to stay at home for two weeks. So far, there have been no positive test results. Two of these workers have developed flu-like symptoms. One of these two has been hospitalized, and the other is isolated in his home; but both have tested negative for the MERS virus.

There have been over 530 confirmed cases of the MERS virus and 174 deaths from it since it was first identified in 2012, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). About one-third of people who have contracted the virus have succumbed to its worst possible outcome, death. Though, pre-existing chronic medical problems were more likely in those cases.

Much is still unknown about the MERS virus. Because many respiratory diseases go undiagnosed, it is thought that MERS has been around, but no one knew because there was no test for it. Less severe cases of the virus are being identified with more frequency which is helping to reduce its high mortality rate. Importantly, MERS does not seem to be extremely infectious. Studies of those who have contracted the virus, have shown that they were in close contact for long periods of time with an infected person. Since the virus is new and much more deadly than a virus like the flu, doctors are still being extra cautious.

MERS does have the ability to live on surfaces and spread to those who have contact with that surface. The specifics of all of the transmissions of the virus are still unknown, but the CDC recommends frequent hand washing, avoiding close contact with the sick, and avoiding touching the eyes, nose, and mouth with unsanitized hands. Scientists are currently seeking to develop a vaccine or find some type of antibody that will effectively neutralizing the virus. At present, care for the virus is mainly supportive. Intravenous fluids, oxygen, ventilatory support, and sometimes intravenous antibiotics, are used in treatment.

Although there has been no confirmed spread of the virus to the passengers who traveled with either of the two men in the U.S. MERS cases, the CDC is still taking things very seriously. The agency urges medical professionals to be on high alert for travelers presenting with specific symptoms who have traveled from the Arabian peninsula in the past couple of weeks. Director of the CDC, Dr. Tom Frieden, said of the MERS cases in a statement released May 12, “This is unwelcome, but not unexpected.”

People should expect to see more of the contagious and deadly MERS Coronavirus in the United States. Dr. Ken Michaels from the Florida Department of Health said “I don’t think we have seen the last of this.” He explained that since there has been a surge in MERS cases in Saudi Arabia and continued travel from that part of the world, people can easily carry the virus with them. Officials from the WHO and the CDC have said the same.

By Twanna Harps


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