What you need to know about MERS

May 27, 2014 in Travel Health  •  By Miles Varn
Health experts in the U.S. are prepared to deal with MERS.

If you follow health stories in the news, you’ve probably heard about Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and may be wondering if you should be concerned. This infectious disease – a coronavirus that is similar to but distinct from the virus that caused the international severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, outbreak about a decade ago – has put government health leaders on high alert.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the first confirmed case of MERS in the U.S. on May 2, when a traveling healthcare professional who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia was isolated and hospitalized in Indiana. He has since fully recovered. A second confirmed case was reported on May 11, when another traveling healthcare worker from Saudi Arabia was diagnosed and hospitalized in Florida, where the recovery continues to progress. The cases were reportedly unrelated.

Fortunately, government health leaders are working vigilantly around the clock to protect the American people, and there are measures you can take to protect yourself.

Understand the disease
People infected with MERS may develop a fever, cough, shortness of breath and other symptoms related to a respiratory infection. Before the CDC confirmed the two American cases, all infections had occurred in the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. About 30 percent of patients died.

So far, the CDC noted that the people who are most at risk of developing MERS include:

  • Those who recently traveled from the Arabian Peninsula
  • Those who have close contact with these travelers
  • Healthcare workers who treat infected individuals without sufficiently protecting themselves
  • Family caregivers.

Anyone who falls into these categories and develops the following symptoms should call a physician and explain the situation:

  • A fever of at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Flu-like problems

How to protect yourself
Common sense and good hygiene will help protect you from MERS. This means regularly washing your hands, being conscious of who around you is sick and avoiding close contact with individuals who appear to have symptoms. Avoid touching your face.

In addition to taking preventative measures, try not to worry. The World Health Organization and other experts noted that, to date, MERS does not seem to be transmitted easily among people. Most recorded cases centered on individuals who either live with or cared for other MERS patients. Still, public health leaders are working diligently to prepare for a potential outbreak in the U.S. Strategies include developing a vaccine, advising airline industry workers on infection control and monitoring any infection trends.

So far, the CDC doesn’t recommend that travelers going to the Arabian Peninsula alter their plans. If you still have questions or concerns about MERS, particularly if you plan on traveling, consider speaking to a health advisor. He or she can provide you with information on how to prepare for your trip and what you need to do if you fall ill during or after your travels.