Deadly MERS Camel Virus Crosses Ocean to U.S.

Friday, May 16, 2014
By Paul Martin

Infection’s spread is still limited, although cases have nearly tripled in past two months

By Helen Branswell
May 15, 2014

The virus took its time crossing the Atlantic. And when the first patient suffering from Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) finally did turn up in the U.S., he made his way, improbably, to Munster, Ind., population 23,413. A week later a second appeared, flying from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the home of the Magic Kingdom—Orlando, Fla. Both men are doctors who work in Saudi hospitals, the best places in the world right now to avoid if you do not want to catch what is officially known as the MERS coronavirus (MERS-CoV). For both, their travel involved multiple legs—two flights plus an intercity bus for the Indiana patient and four flights for the Florida patient—to get to their destinations, sharing the air with several hundred fellow passengers along the way.

The Indiana man has recovered; the man in Florida remains in the hospital and is said to be improving. Aided by counterparts at Public Health England who are tracing travelers on Saudi Arabia–to-London flights, state and federal public health staffs in the U.S. have spent untold hours identifying people with whom the men came in contact and testing dozens of health care workers, family members and friends. Fingers crossed, there have been no reports that they passed the virus to others in their travels.

But although these cases appear to be crises averted, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that incidents like these will continue to occur, in the U.S. and elsewhere. Enormous resources go into ensuring that these episodes remain isolated and that local spread, if it begins, is snuffed out before it can lead to wider outbreaks. Martin Cetron, director of the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls the task massive. “We’re talking about hundreds of person-hours. Maybe actually thousands of person-hours…. So yes, it’s a big deal.” And infectious diseases experts warn that one of these times, some place may not be so lucky.

The U.S., the Netherlands, Malaysia, the Philippines, Egypt, Jordan, Greece—all these countries have detected imported MERS coronavirus infections in the past six weeks. (Jordan has had homegrown cases, too; indeed, it is where the first known MERS infections occurred in April 2012.) Turkey and Indonesia would have had to deal with MERS importations as well, but their infected citizens, who had traveled to Saudi Arabia as religious pilgrims, were hospitalized before they could board flights home.

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