The MERS case was identified right here in Indiana. The man who has it is being treated in a hospital in Munster – doctors say he is improving and will likely go home soon. And no other cases have been identified. But that doesn’t mean the threat is completely gone.
This is what MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, looks like under a microscope. Its symptoms include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
At a press conference earlier this week, CDC epidemiologist Daniel Feikin explained that MERS was first discovered in the Arabian peninsula in 2012.
“Although we didn’t know where it would happen, we are not surprised that MERS CO-V has come to the United States,” Feikin says. “We know that infectious diseases do not respect international boundaries. In this day and age of global travel and trade, infectious diseases can spread almost anywhere.”
The American patient travelled from Saudi Arabia to Chicago, then took a bus into Indiana to visit family. He checked into Community Hospital in Munster with a cough – and the staff made the call to send tests to the State Board of Health.
Community Hospital Medical Information Officer Alan Kumar says the patient is now isolated, and exposed family and hospital workers were also tested.
“Employee and family results have all been negative up to this point,” Kumar says. “The incubation period can be anywhere from 2 to 14 days as far as we’re aware, with most cases occurring within 5 days. We believe that we have contained the exposure at this point, but out of vigilance we are going to continue to monitor the situation.”
MERS is a coronavirus, named for the crown of spikes on the surface. And of the people who have gotten it so far, nearly one in three have died.
That’s a high mortality rate – but Indiana University chemistry professor David Giedroc says the public shouldn’t panic yet.
“Given the fact that human-to-human transmission, at least currently, doesn’t appear to be that efficient, and the virus certainly doesn’t persist in the community – I’m actually not so concerned about this one,” Giedroc says.
And despite MERS being relatively new, scientists weren’t exactly caught by surprise. There’s a lot of research on corona viruses thanks to a more famous virus from a decade ago – SARS.
Thanks to that epidemic, hospitals and agencies in Indiana have procedures in place for viruses with no known treatment. In this case, it included isolating the patient as quickly as possible, then isolating and testing anyone he came into direct contact with.
“The collaboration between national, state, and federal has been outstanding,” Indiana State Health Commissioner William VanNess says. “Between the CDC, all local health departments, the Governor’s office, Homeland Security – I want to assure Hoosiers that our medical experts, along with the CDC and hospital are closely monitoring the situation.”
The State Department and CDC haven’t upgraded travel advisories to the Arabian peninsula for now, and no other MERS cases have been detected in the US. But Giedroc says the concern is that this is the second major corona virus outbreak in 10 years.
“And so, one might look ahead and say, well, is this going to keep happening, and I think that is a legitimate concern,” Giedroc says. “The next one, MERS 2 or 3 might be much more deadly, if you will, much more pathogenic than MERS is. And I think that’s the concern, that’s where resources need to be put in place to address these basic issues.”
So far there have been over 300 cases of MERS in the Arabian peninsula. Scientists have tentatively linked the virus to transmission through camels.