MERS patient in United States significant – marks documented case of human-to-human transmission

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Like its coronavirus cousin SARS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) offers continuing evidence of nature’s adaptability and humanity’s foibles and vulnerabilities.  As viruses are exchanged between hosts – via airborne transmission, on surfaces (including skin), or bodily fluids (including saliva droplets in sneezes) – they can mutate.  Animal to human transmission is a danger; human-to-human transmission opens the door to an epidemic. MERS-infected-vero-cells

MERS emerged in the Middle East and has been transmitted primarily in that region.  More extensive transmission, facilitated by a global transportation system and movement of people, has carried MERS elsewhere in Asia and to at least three other continents.

Movement of MERS across the globe has been predominantly with foreign health workers returning home from Saudi Arabia and neighboring nations.  The problem is that is can take as long as two weeks for the symptoms of MERS to emerge.  MERS attacks the respiratory system — symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath — and can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure.  Approximately 30 percent of cases are fatal.

Scientists have yet to discover the method of MERS transmission.  Identification of a third MERS patient in the United States is significant because it marks a documented case of human-to-human transmission.  This third victim had several interactions with an infected healthcare worker in Indiana.  Understanding the means of transmission is central to countering the spread of this disease.  Research hints that MERS may be more prevalent than previously known, with some people having been infected but not developing acute symptoms and recovering without medical intervention.  It is here that science, cultural norms, and national interests can intersect. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies only those with active symptoms as MERS case.  Blood tests have identified individuals with antibodies to the MERS virus, indicating that they had been infected.  Saudi Arabia does not conduct these blood tests, leading to charges that the Saudis are not fully cooperating with global health officials. 

HL1-MERSealth officials have not recommended travel restrictions.  The seriousness of MERS is such, however, to warrant increased awareness.  Fever and symptoms of respiratory illness, such as cough or shortness of breath, within 14 days of traveling from the Middle East [Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen], are reasons to see your healthcare provider and mention your recent travel.  Similarly, development of symptoms after interacting with someone who has traveled from this region is also reason for caution.

Health official are continuing to track cases, investigate the disease, and search for a vaccine.  Meanwhile, the CDC’s advice for protecting yourself from respiratory illnesses by taking everyday precautions applies:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, and help young children do the same.  If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact, such as kissing, sharing cups, or sharing eating utensils, with sick people.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs.
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