CDC Warns of MERS — Middle East respiratory syndrome has killed a third of those who caught the virus.

Middle East respiratory syndrome-coronavirus was found in only two people in the U.S. last year, but health officials appear concerned that the virus could have more of an effect in the country in 2015: A new advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells doctors to look out for signs of infection in Americans who have traveled to or near the Arabian Peninsula.  

More than 500 people in the U.S. from 45 states have been screened and tested negative for the virus to date, the CDC said. The two patients in the U.S. who tested positive last May were both health care workers who lived in Saudi Arabia and were visiting the U.S. One case occurred in Indiana, and the other in Florida. The patients were not linked to each other; both were hospitalized and discharged, and did not spread the virus to anyone else.

“It is important that we remain vigilant and quickly identify and respond to any additional importations,” Dr. David Swerdlow, who is leading the CDC’s MERS response, said in a statement after the cases were found.

Though MERS hasn’t affected Americans significantly to date, it poses a threat in other parts of the world. The virus first was first reported in humans in September 2012 in Saudi Arabia. It continues to cause severe respiratory illness and death today, mostly in countries in or near the Arabian Peninsula, according to the CDC. As of Friday, 956 confirmed cases and 351 deaths had been reported worldwide, according to data from the World Health Organization.

All reported cases have been directly or indirectly linked through travel to or residence in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, Yemen, Lebanon and Iran. In an advisory last year, Susan Gerber, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC, said officials expect MERS “will cause more cases globally, including in the United States.” The CDC is suggesting that travelers seek care if they begin to have difficulty breathing within 14 days of a trip to or near the Arabian Peninsula.

Travel to the region likely increased during the past week, as thousands gathered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, following the death of King Abdullah early Friday. Among them were global leaders, including President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande, who paid their respects.

Scientists are still trying to understand the respiratory infection better and aren’t sure of its origins; the CDC has said the MERS virus is different from any other previously found in people. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. It does not appear to pass easily from person to person, health officials say, but workers who treat infected patients are particularly vulnerable.    

MERS has no cure or treatment, such as antiviral medications that are provided for the flu. Care instead is supportive, and can include connecting patients to a ventilator and moving them to an intensive-care unit. There is no vaccine for the virus, though the National Institutes of Health is exploring the possibility of developing one.

MERS is part of a wide-range of viruses – including ones that cause the common cold and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which spread across southern China more than a decade ago, killing nearly 800 people worldwide.

The virus can spread from animals to people, though it is unclear whether the virus comes from animals, according to the National Institutes of Health. The World Health Organization has warned that people who work closely with camels – including farm workers, slaughterhouse workers and veterinarians – may be at high risk of infection. Anyone who visits farms during their travels should wash their hands and avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth, the organization says. The virus also has been detected in raw milk in Qatar. 

As is often the case with most viruses, people with diabetes, renal failure, chronic lung disease or those who have a compromised immune system are considered at high risk of contracting a more severe case of MERS, the World Health Organization says.


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