US health officials have reported the first case of the mysterious new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus, or MERS, in the United States. It’s in a health care worker who traveled to Indiana from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last month.
Here are 5 facts you need to know about MERS:
1. MERS is new virus
MERS was first seen in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Since then it has spread to 16 countries, most in the Middle East but also in Europe and Asia and now including the United States. It’s a coronavirus, a distant relative of the SARS — severe acute respiratory syndrome virus — that infected 8,000 people around the world and killed nearly 800 before it was stopped.
2. MERS is a deadly virus
WHO reports more than 250 confirmed cases and 93 deaths since the virus was identified in 2012. But Saudi Arabia alone has reported 371 cases, with 107 deaths — that’s a roughly one-third death rate.
Tests of people who have been in contact with patients show some apparently get infected and do not get sick, so it’s hard to know what the actual death rate is. Most who die have been either elderly or had another illness, such as diabetes or kidney failure.
3. MERS does not spread easily
Health officials have closely studied the known patients, and the people who become infected usually have been in close and prolonged contact. There’s been no documented spread on an airplane, for instance. A patient in France who died infected a person who shared his hospital room, and family clusters have been reported from Saudi Arabia.
4. MERS – no treatment right now
There’s no vaccine against MERS, although some groups are working on one, and antiviral drugs don’t appear to be of much use against it, either. The CDC has told U.S. hospitals to take strict precautions if someone shows up with symptoms and has recently traveled to the Middle East. Health care workers in contact with such patients should wear special face masks, gloves and gowns and follow other protocols to protect themselves and other patients.
5. MERS – no known origin
The latest research suggests camels, but many patients have had no known contact with camels. Camel meat or milk might be a source, and the virus can live on surfaces and potentially could spread when people touch an infected surface.
It is possible that MERS has been circulating but no one knew what it was because there wasn’t a test for it. Many respiratory diseases are never diagnosed.