DENVER -- For the first time in the U.S., a potentially deadly virus has been diagnosed. It showed up two years ago in Saudi Arabia, and Fri, May 2, it was confirmed in an American traveler.
It’s called MERS; Middle East Upper Respiratory Syndrome. Right now experts don’t exactly know how it spreads, but in some cases, it has spread person-to-person through close contact.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention is promising swift action after the American Doctor from Indiana came down with MERS upon returning from Saudi Arabia.
The CDC says he took two international flights and a bus in Indiana to get home. The agency is now trying to connect with everyone he may have come in contact with.
“If you don’t have symptoms, you should be fine. We want people though, who were in close contact with the patient to be monitoring for symptoms, fever - shortness of breath or cough and to let their provider know,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat with the CDC.
Two years ago MERS popped up in the Middle East. Since then, there have been 401 confirmed cases. A quarter of those people died.
All the reported cases originated in six counties in the Arabian Peninsula.
“It seems to be hard to get, but once you get it, you can get very sick,” said Dr. Luciano Lemos-Filho. He’s an ICU physician and infectious disease specialist with Swedish Medical Center and National Jewish Health in Denver.
He says MERS is unlikely to become an epidemic. “You are thousands, if not millions more times likely to die of the flu,” he said.
But still, there have been pockets of outbreaks overseas, within hospitals and families. “It`s not very spreadable, at least in terms of what we know right now.”
Researchers are working around the clock to identify the cause and treatment. “It circulates mainly in bats and camels it seems to be right now."
As of now, there are no travel advisories. The CDC is just recommending that people wash their hands and avoid others that are sick.
Q: What is MERS?
A: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a viral respiratory illness. MERS is caused by a coronavirus called “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus” (MERS-CoV).
Q: What is MERS-CoV?
A: MERS-CoV is a beta coronavirus. It was first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. MERS-CoV used to be called “novel coronavirus,” or “nCoV”. It is different from other coronaviruses that have been found in people before.
Q: Is MERS-CoV the same as the SARS virus?
A: No. MERS-CoV is not the same coronavirus that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. However, like the SARS virus, MERS-CoV is most similar to coronaviruses found in bats. CDC is still learning about MERS.
Q: What are the symptoms of MERS?
A: Most people who got infected with MERS-CoV developed severe acute respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath. About half of them died. Some people were reported as having a mild respiratory illness.
Q: Does MERS-CoV spread from person to person?
A: MERS-CoV has been shown to spread between people who are in close contact. Transmission from infected patients to healthcare personnel has also been observed. Clusters of cases in several countries are being investigated.
Q: How can I help protect myself?
A: CDC advises that people follow these tips to help prevent respiratory illnesses:
- 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.
Q: Is there a vaccine?
A: No, but CDC is discussing with partners the possibility of developing one.
Q: What are the treatments?
A: There are no specific treatments recommended for illnesses caused by MERS-CoV. Medical care is supportive and to help relieve symptoms.
CNN contributed to this report