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Health Officials Monitor 2nd U.S. MERS Case

May 16, 2014

Health officials have confirmed the second case of MERS – Middle East Respiratory Syndrome – in the U.S. The patient, a health care worker who lives and works in Saudi Arabia and traveled to Florida to visit family, is receiving treatment in isolation at an Orlando hospital.

Cells infected with MERS-CoV. Image source: Jennifer L. Harcourt (CDC)

In a news conference on Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the patient began feeling symptoms on a trip from Saudi Arabia to Florida, during which the patient changed planes at Atlanta’s airport.

Cherie Drenzek, D.V.M., state epidemiologist at the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), said although the latest MERS case has a connection to Georgia, residents have nothing to fear.

“We don’t think it poses a risk at all to the general public,” she said.

For now, Drenzek said health care providers in the state should be vigilant if any patients report MERS-like illness. Last week, DPH sent a public health alert to the state’s health care professionals on identifying MERS and reporting any suspected cases to DPH.

According to CDC, the MERS patient traveled on airplanes from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to London, then on to Boston, Atlanta and finally, Orlando. After arriving in the U.S. on May 1, the patient entered the hospital on May 8. Officials did not specify the patient’s activities after arriving in Florida, but they did say the patient did not visit any theme parks in the Orlando area.

CDC is working on contacting passengers who were on U.S. flights with the patient. So far, 90 Georgia residents have been identified on the flights from Boston to Atlanta and Atlanta to Orlando. CDC is asking passengers to voluntarily give blood samples so scientists can monitor how the virus impacts those who are exposed to MERS over a period of time.

MERS is a respiratory illness that begins with flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills and shortness of breath, but can lead to pneumonia and even death. The virus first emerged on the Arabian Peninsula in 2012. So far, nearly 580 cases of the respiratory illness, including 173 deaths, have been reported to the World Health Organization, nearly all of them with ties to the Middle East.   

Scientists still aren’t completely certain how MERS is transmitted, but Drenzek said so far, it appears that the virus requires very close contact for transmission, such as the interaction between health care workers or family caregivers and infected patients. 

The U.S.’s first case of MERS appeared in Indiana earlier this month in a male health care worker who was living and working in Saudi Arabia. After receiving treatment, he was released from an Indiana hospital on May 9. Officials say the cases in Indiana and Florida are not linked.

CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., said U.S. health officials knew it was only a matter of time before MERS appeared in the U.S.

“We’ve anticipated MERS reaching the U.S., and we’re prepared for and are taking swift action,” he said earlier this month. “This case reminds us that we are all connected by the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink.”

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