MERS Case in the United States: Are We In Danger From This Novel Coronavirus?

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Coronavirus gets its name from the crown-like spikes that surround the virus. Image by the CDC

Coronavirus gets its name from the crown-like spikes that surround the virus. Image by the CDC

A case of Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus has now been confirmed in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on Friday, May 2, 2014 that a healthcare worker who had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia was in isolation in an Indiana hospital.

The U.S. patient was reportedly in good condition and the CDC are working to alert passengers that he may have had close contact with under concerns that they may become infected.

So how concerned should you be now that MERS is in the United States? And what exactly is MERS? Here is what you need to know to be up to date on the developing situation.

What is MERS?

A type of coronavirus causes MERS-CoV, which gets its name from the crown-like spikes you see around the virus. Coronaviruses are common viruses that typically cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract infections. MERS is in the same coronavirus family that also includes the SARS virus.

Source of MERS

These viruses can also infect animals, but generally only one small group of related species. Currently, health officials have found the MERS virus in camels in Qatar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and a bat in Saudi Arabia. The CDC and the World Health Organization are working to identify the role that camels, bats, and other animals may play in the transmission of MERS. 

MERS Symptoms and Transmission

Researchers first identified MERS-CoV in 2012 in Saudi Arabia – noting that it is different from other coronaviruses. According to the CDC, most people who contracted MERS developed a severe acute respiratory infection that includes fever, cough, and shortness of breath – and about 30 percent of them have died. On the other hand, some people who tested positive for MERS had a mild infection or showed no symptoms at all.

The MERS virus can spread from person to person, though it is not a sustained mode of transmission. Those who have contracted MERS have been those who have been in close contact with the ill person, such as healthcare workers.

MERS Prevention and Protection

There is no specific treatment for MERS, only supportive treatment for the symptoms and there is no vaccine, so your best protection is prevention.

Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer can help prevent infections. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands, as this is an entryway for viruses and bacteria. Clean and disinfect surfaces and toys that you and your family will be touching frequently; such as door knobs and light switches.

Avoid close contact with anyone who’s sick – don’t share utensils or drinking glasses, or kisses with anyone who’s ill – and you can protect yourself from contracting many types of illnesses, not just MERS or SARS.

MERS in the US

While the first case of MERS in the United States maybe a bit alarming, CDC officials reassure the public that unless you have had close contact with someone who’s infected, such as caring for them or living with them, you are most likely not at risk – People who come in casual contact with someone who has MERS will not necessarily become infected themselves.

The CDC has not issued any travel warnings to avoid countries that are involved in the outbreak; however, if you become sick with MERS symptoms within two weeks of traveling in or around the Arabian Peninsula, you should seek medical care and tell your doctor about your travels.

As part of the public health preparedness, the CDC is distributing MERS-CoV testing kits to state health departments and have provided documents to healthcare providers that give guidance on MERS infection. The CDC is also assessing ill passengers who are returning from areas where the MERS virus is occurring.

Are you worried about MERS?

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