Average Americans could be spreading the potentially deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus without even knowing it, say doctors who believe that an Illinois man may have caught MERS and spread it without noticing any major symptoms.
“You don’t have to be in the intensive care unit with pneumonia to have a case of MERS,” Dr. David Swerdlow of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told Reuters. “We assume they are less infectious (to others), but we don’t know.”
CDC experts think that some people could develop weaker cases of the syndrome and spread it thinking that they simply have a cold or the flu. The danger with that is that those individuals could spread MERS to people with weaker immune systems who could catch it and die from it.
‘Typhoid Mary’ of MERS Possible?
“Just think of Typhoid Mary,” Dr. Amesh Adalja of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said. Mary Mallon or Typhoid Mary worked as a cook and infected 49 people with typhoid fever in the early 1900s. Mallon was so infectious that she was forcibly quarantined for the last 23 years of her life.
The Illinois patient apparently caught MERS from an Indiana man who contracted the disease in Saudi Arabia. News reports indicate that the unidentified Illinois patient caught the virus after meeting the Indiana man on one occasion, for about 40 minutes, during a work-related business meeting. The Illinois man like Typhoid Mary was an asymptomatic carrier, a person who spreads a disease without exhibiting symptoms of it.
“Asymptomatic carriers of diseases can represent a major route for a pathogen to spread,” Adalja said. Typhoid Mary caused outbreaks of typhoid fever wherever she went.
Doctors Know Little About MERS
So far there have been three known cases of MERS in the US: those in Indiana and Illinois and one in Orlando, Florida. The Indiana patient is the first person in the US known to have an asymptomatic case of the disease.
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“We don’t know what proportion of infected people are asymptomatic, what proportion of people are symptomatic and what proportion of people have severe disease,” Swerdlow said. Doctors know little about MERS because it is a new disease first reported in 2012.
Around 145 people have died of MERS in the Middle East where it originated. The World Health Organization estimates that around 27 percent of the people who contract MERS die from the disease.
There is no vaccine for MERS and doctors don’t know specifically how it spreads, although it is known to spread at least through face-to-face contact. The current theory is that the disease originated in camels which are as common in Saudi Arabia as horses are in the United States.
What You Can Do to Prevent MERS
The CDC recommends taking common sense precautions to prevent the spreading of MERS:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, and help young children do the same. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact, such as kissing, sharing cups, or sharing eating utensils, with sick people.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs.
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