War on MERS: Deadly virus prompts global battle plans

Monday, July 1, 2013
By Paul Martin

The deadly MERS virus from the Middle East hasn’t reached the U.S., but health officials take it seriously and are making plans.

By Eryn Brown
LATimes.com
June 29, 2013

ATLANTA — In a war room of sorts in a neatly appointed government building, U.S. officers dressed in crisp uniforms arranged themselves around a U-shaped table and kept their eyes trained on a giant screen. PowerPoint slides ticked through the latest movements of an enemy that recently emerged in Saudi Arabia — a mysterious virus that has killed more than half of the people known to have been infected.

Here at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts from the U.S. Public Health Service and their civilian counterparts have been meeting twice a week since the beginning of June to keep tabs on the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus. MERS-CoV, as the pathogen is known, attacks the lungs and causes fevers, severe coughs and rapid renal failure.

Since it was first isolated in June 2012 in the city of Jeddah, MERS has infected at least 77 people and killed at least 40 of them. The number of confirmed cases has quadrupled since April, and people as far away as Tunisia and Britain have been sickened. Most troubling to health experts are reports of illnesses in patients who have not been to the Middle East.

The virus has not yet emerged in the U.S., and maybe it never will.

But when the pilgrimage season begins in July, perhaps 11,000 American Muslims will travel to the Arabian Peninsula, if past trends persist. In the meantime, millions more will fly between continents, citizens of today’s globalized world.

“A person from New York could go to Saudi Arabia for business and carry the virus home on the way back,” said Matthew Frieman, a virologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. “There’s zero reason why that couldn’t happen.”

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