3rd U.S. Case Raises More Questions About MERS Virus

Federal health officials reported over the weekend that the virus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, had spread from one person to another for the first time in the U.S.

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A relatively new infectious disease has been causing concern in recent weeks. It's called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS. Over the weekend, federal health officials reported that for the first time the virus that causes MERS had spread from one person to another in the United States.

NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joined our David Greene to discuss what we know about MERS.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Rob, let's just start with the basics here if we can. As the name suggests, MERS first emerged in the Middle East. I mean what else do we know about this illness?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: That's right. The first cases of MERS were discovered in the Middle East in 2012. And specifically, these were people who were diagnosed in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. And they came into the hospital, or showed up at a doctor's office, with a bunch of different symptoms like a bad cough, a high fever, shortness of breath.

It turned out they had a virus that nobody had ever seen before. And it was a type of virus known as a corona virus. Which is the same kind of virus that causes another serious life-threatening condition known as SARS.

GREENE: Something we heard a lot about in the past.

STEIN: That's right. In this case, the MERS virus, we're not sure where it came from. We're still trying to figure that out. There's some evidence that it might have come from camels although we're still not really sure.

GREENE: So, and I know in a story like this, I mean we want to be really careful not to raise too many alarm bells. But what is the current situation as we've now come to 2014, you know, since this virus was discovered?

STEIN: Well, the World Health Organization says at least 600 cases have now been reported in at least 18 countries; about 170 of those people have died. Most of those cases are still in the Middle East primarily in Saudi Arabia and nearby countries. But there have been other cases that have occurred primarily among people who got infected in Saudi Arabia, or one of those nearby countries, and then traveled somewhere else, taking the virus with them.

GREENE: Mm-hmm. And what about the United States? How do we think the virus got here and what have the cases been like?

STEIN: You know, it's very similar scenario. Essentially, there have been three people in the United States that have been confirmed to be infected with the MERS virus. Two of them were men who were working as health care workers in hospitals in Saudi Arabia. They traveled to Indiana and Florida to visit some family. And while they're traveling they got sick. And it turned out they had MERS.

And then over the weekend we heard about a third case. This was a man in Illinois who, it turned out, has had a couple of business meetings with that fellow from Saudi Arabia who got sick in Indiana. And then he ended up getting tested and tested positive for the MERS virus himself.

GREENE: And so this sounds pretty significant. I mean this is someone who was not in Saudi Arabia but actually got this virus potentially from someone here in this country who had been to Saudi Arabia.

STEIN: Yes, so that's the significance of this case. Most of the people who've gotten infected elsewhere in the world have been people who had really close contact with somebody with MERS. They were either health care workers taking care of a sick person or family members. This person got infected apparently during a 40-minute business meeting. It was fairly casual contact. The only direct physical contact appears to have been a handshake.

GREENE: The three cases in the United States, how are those people doing?

STEIN: The first two cases, they're both fine. They were hospitalized for a while but they've both been released. The third person, the person who got infected in Illinois, he seems fine. He doesn't seem like he ever got sick at all.

GREENE: So that's good news for now. Where do we go from here in terms of trying to contain this?

STEIN: Right now they're saying look, there's no real reason for any kind of widespread concern or alarm. But this is a - could be potentially serious situation so we want to keep an eye on things. And doctors are giving people just sort of common sense advice. They're saying if you've been to the Middle East and you've developed any of these symptoms - coughing, fever, shortness of breath - go see your doctor right away. Just make sure that you're OK and you don't have MERS.

Otherwise, use other common sense things to protect yourself; wash your hands, try not to cough on other people. That sort of thing.

GREENE: All right, NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein updating us on what we know so far about the MERS virus. Rob, thanks a lot.

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

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