The Middle East Respiratory Virus - or MERS - has arrived in the US and is dominating the headlines. What is it? Who is most at risk? What can we do to protect ourselves?
MERS joins a relatively long list of diseases which have grabbed our attention over the last couple of decades. Do you remember SARS, the Avian flu, or the Swine flu? All these diseases tended to spread rapidly and cause serious symptoms that sometimes resulted in death. These characteristics often prompt sensational news reporting and cause some of us to become uneasy.
Like SARS, MERS is caused by a type of virus called a coronavirus. All coronaviruses cause illnesses in the upper respiratory tract, and many times these illnesses are either mild or moderate in nature. Unfortunately, most people who become ill with MERS tend to have severe upper respiratory tract illnesses. Common symptoms include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. To date, MERS has a 30% mortality rate, which is lower than the highly pathogenic H5N1 Avian Flu (60%) but higher than SARS (10%).
MERS was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It is considered an outbreak (sudden increase in cases) and an epidemic (widespread throughout a region) in the Arabian Peninsula. It spread beyond this region when people who were sick with MERS traveled to other parts of the world, including the US. Hopefully MERS will not develop into a widespread global disease, otherwise known as a pandemic.
MERS appears to have originated in animals and then spread to humans in much the same way that the Swine flu and Avian flu did. While it's thought that it can only be transmitted by way of very close person-to-person contact, one of the recent US cases doesn't appear to follow that model. We clearly have a lot more to learn about MERS.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) is currently advising that the general US population has a low risk of contracting MERS. People who travel to the Arabian Peninsula - or who have close contact with these individuals - have a greater risk of becoming infected with the MERS virus. Likewise, healthcare workers who do not follow infection control precautions when treating infected individuals also have an increased risk.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) suggests that people who travel to the Arabian Peninsula closely monitor their health, and immediately see a healthcare professional if MERS symptoms develop. Everyone can reduce their risk of contracting MERS and other infectious diseases by following some basic precautions, which include frequent hand washing, covering your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your shirt sleeve, not touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands, and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
For more safety and health information, visit the CDC's website at: http://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/MERS/about/index.html
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