It was inevitable that the virus known as Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, would come to the United States. Friday, the CDC announced that it has hit our shores through at least one known infected person.
You may have seen this announcement being reported in the media. Here’s some information to help you put the news into context.
MERS: The Beginning
MERS is a new virus. It started at couple of years ago and has been confined mostly to the Middle East. It’s still being studied, but it appears to be spread by respiratory secretions, such as through coughing and sneezing.
Like many viruses, including the flu, MERS seems to have started and mutated in animals—in the MERS case, probably bats and camels.
Then it began occasionally spreading to humans through infected camels. Now it seems to be able to spread from human to human. Most of those cases have occurred with caregivers.
The U.S. Case
From the CDC press release:
On April 24, the patient [with MERS] traveled by plane from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to London, England then from London to Chicago, Illinois. The patient then took a bus from Chicago to Indiana. … The patient is being well cared for and is isolated; the patient is currently in stable condition. …
“It is understandable that some may be concerned about this situation, but this first U.S. case of MERS-CoV infection represents a very low risk to the general public,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general and director of CDC’s National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases. In some countries, the virus has spread from person to person through close contact, such as caring for or living with an infected person. However, there is currently no evidence of sustained spread of MERS-CoV in community settings.
Even in the Middle East MERS is still not very common, but when someone gets it, too often it leads to a very bad and sometimes deadly pneumonia. The CDC reports that 401 people have come down with the virus; 93, or about a quarter, have died. Common symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
Like most viruses, MERS does have an incubation period—when the person has the virus but not symptoms. This give the person time to travel without knowing they’re sick. That’s how this first case in the United States occurred. Someone traveled here from the Middle East. There have also been rare cases found in Europe and Asia from such travelers.
At this point, MERS has a lot of similarities to the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus from about 10 years ago. Both are in the coronavirus family, as are some colds and other viruses. They spread through air droplets and can cause deadly pneumonias.
SARS started in Asia. It killed several hundred folks. People were afraid to get on airplanes. Some proclaimed it the next pandemic. And then, it just disappeared. No more SARS cases, and no one really knows why.
You know, the flu is kind of like that. A strain infects tons of people, then almost disappears, only to start a new strain the next year. In the flu’s case, the disappearance may happen because we begin to take better precautions so we don’t get it, or possibly the majority of people who were really susceptible get it and there’s no one else easily to infect.
In the SARS case, maybe the disappearance was from everyone taking proper precautions, or it could have just mutated itself out of existence. No one really knows, and no one knows if it will come back.
For MERS, It’s too early to tell its future worldwide impact. Right now, certainly there’s not much of a scare, but that could change, especially if it seems to be getting easier to catch from person to person.
How Not to Catch a Virus
Hopefully if you follow my blog, you know what to do to prevent getting a virus anyway. Whether it’s a flu, a common cold or a deadly new virus, make it a routine to wash your hands frequently and properly. Try to stay as far away from people who are coughing or sneezing as is practical.
If you’re ever in a prolonged, crowded survival situation or caring for someone with a respiratory infection, consider wearing an N95 mask, and know how to wear it properly.
For information on treating viruses when you can’t get to a doctor, see the following posts. As of this writing, there’s no specific treatment for MERS.
I don’t know if MERS will end up a serious worldwide threat or just go away like SARS, but I do know one thing for sure: This won’t be the last virus to give us a scare.
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