MERS Appears To Spread With Business-Meeting Contact

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NPR's Lynn Neary talks to science correspondent Rob Stein about the first human-to-human infection of MERS in the U.S.


A dangerous new virus that initially emerged in the Middle East has spread from one person to another for the first time in the United States. That's according to federal health officials. NPR's Rob Stein joins us now to explain. Thanks for being with us, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Oh, sure. Nice to be here.

NEARY: All right. Let's start by reminding people about this virus. It causes a disease known as MERS. Can you tell us a little bit more about MERS?

STEIN: Sure. MERS stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, and it's caused by a virus that first emerged in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It can be pretty serious. It causes a fever, coughing and sometimes life-threatening complications. In fact, of the more than 400 cases that have been reported so far, about 145 of those people have died.

NEARY: And most of those cases have been in Saudi Arabia or nearby countries, right?

STEIN: That's right. They've either been in the Middle East or Saudi Arabia or countries in that region or among people who traveled from that part of the world to other countries. And that's what happened in United States, in this country.

At the end of April, a health care worker from Saudi Arabia traveled to Indiana to visit some family ended up in the hospital with MERS. And last week, we heard about another very similar case. A health care worker from Saudi Arabia ended up in a hospital in Orlando, Fla. with MERS.

NEARY: And now we have a new development. Tell us about that.

STEIN: Well, it turns out that that MERS patient in Indiana had a couple of business meetings with another man in nearby Illinois before he was hospitalized. And health officials revealed late yesterday that new tests on that man indicated that he had been infected with the MERS virus.

So he had caught the virus during those meetings. And that marks the first time the MERS virus has spread from one person to another in this country.

NEARY: So how is that man who caught the virus in Illinois? How's he doing?

STEIN: Well, he was infected with the MERS virus, but there's no indication that he actually developed the disease MERS. He had a few cold symptoms at one point that doesn't seem to have anything to do with it.

He might have just been allergies, and they went away. And so at the moment, he seems to be doing fine. But just to be on the safe side, officials have asked him to kind of lay low and stay away from other people. And they're keeping an eye on him.

NEARY: So, so far, no one's really gotten sick in this country. How concerned should we really be?

STEIN: That's right. So far, it's just these two isolated cases of people who got infected in the Middle East and came here and got sick. This one person who was exposed seems like he might have been infected, but he didn't get sick. So for now, federal officials are saying there's no reason for widespread alarm.

But they're keeping a close eye on it because this was case where someone apparently got infected from fairly casual contact. It was a 40-minute business meeting where there was no physical contact other than a handshake. So they were - you know, want to keep an eye to see if there's other transmissions like that that might be occurring.

NEARY: All right. So what happens now?

STEIN: Well, they're keeping a close eye on everyone who came in contact with those first two patients, and they're also keeping a close eye on this Illinois man. And they're to track down now everyone who came in contact with that person to see if any of them got infected.

NEARY: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks so much, Rob.

STEIN: Oh, sure. Nice to be here, Lynn.

NEARY: This is NPR News.

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