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First U.S. case of MERS virus confirmed in Indiana health care worker

The New York Times reports on May 2 that the first case of the MERS virus in the United States has been confirmed. The disease was found in an Indiana health care worker who recently traveled to Saudi Arabia.

MERS stands for Middle East respiratory syndrome. It is similar to SARS or severe acute respiratory syndrome which swept through China in 2002 and 2003. The new virus first appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2012. To date, about 400 cases have been reported with approximately one-third resulting in death.

The American MERS patient is in stable condition in an Indiana hospital. According to Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of respiratory diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one case of the virus in this country is “a very low risk.”

A C.D.C. team will be retracing the man’s steps and contacts in his recent trip to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Airline seating charts will be used to track down travelers close to the patient. Part of his trip involved traveling on a bus, however, which may be harder to track down.

Symptoms of MERS include fever and shortness of breath, much like pneumonia. The incubation period is typically five days. Hospitals have been advised to test any patient who has returned from a trip to the Middle East within two weeks of becoming ill.

The disease is thought to have originated in bats. Right now, though, it is widespread in camels. Visitors to the Middle East have been warned against contact with farm animals and camels. The virus may be transmitted in raw camel milk and meat.

There have been outbreaks in Saudi Arabia and in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The first Egyptian case has just been reported.

As of right now, there is no vaccine available and no cure. Patients are given antibiotics and put on ventilators. A healthy immune system should be able to slowly defeat the virus.