No Cure for MERS

Middle East respiratory syndrome virus, a deadly infectious disease found overseas, could spread to the U.S.

Egyptian Muslim pilgrims pray after they cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," the last rite of the annual hajj, in Mina near the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013.
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Middle East respiratory syndrome virus, (MERS) is an emerging infectious disease without a cure. Symptoms of the disease include fever, cough and shortness of breath. While there have been no cases reported in the U.S., the virus remains a serious threat.

"We still don't fully understand that virus, and how it's spreading, and we don't have tools yet in place to treat it or prevent it with vaccine," says Tom Inglesby, director and CEO of the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

As of Dec. 17, there have been nearly 165 cases of MERS worldwide, 70 of them fatal. The first case of MERS in a human was reported in September 2012, according to the World Health Organization. The majority of reported cases have been in the Middle East, in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, hence the moniker, but France and the U.K. have also been touched by the illness. Scientists believe they may have found a genetic link to the virus in camels, but they still do not know how humans are exposed or infected with the virus.

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According to WHO's International Health Regulations, the disease is cited as a serious concern but not a "public health emergency of international concern," reports Trust for America's Health (TFAH) in a study released Tuesday.

Still, health experts have warned doctors and other health care workers that they must be vigilant.

"Because of the frequency of travel between the Middle East and the U.S, it would not be surprising if in the year ahead we had a case of MERS," says Inglesby.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has advised anyone who develops a fever, cough or shortness of breath within two week of traveling to countries within the Arabian Peninsula to visit a health care provider.

State health laboratories can test whether or not a person has contracted the MERS virus. And Inglesby says there is "some awareness" of the disease in hospital emergency rooms and clinics.

"It's basically a matter of continuing vigilance in the health care community. So that [health care workers] would have the proper suspicion of seeing someone who they believe might have the disease and getting the right lab test," he adds.

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And while it may not be a "public health emergency," it's still a danger. "At least from the number of people who have confirmed viruses, there is a very high case fatality rate, which makes it a very important virus in the world," says Inglesby.

MERS is one example of the types of outbreaks the U.S. could see in the coming years, says Inglesby, who also underscores the need to be vigilant in the fight against infectious diseases.

If a case were to be discovered, the patient would likely be isolated and given supportive care, and staff would be advised to follow these CDC recommendations.

A concern, however, for Inglesby and other experts is that roughly 40,000 public health workers, as well as numerous researchers and scientists have lost their jobs due to budget cuts in the last 5 years. These jobs are important since scientists in particular have a critical role to play in fighting emerging infectious disease, and often help perform the first line of defense.

"The CDC has a wonderful disease detection program that's incredibly important to sustain, because we need to find those emerging new diseases quickly, so that we can find their cause, develop treatments [and] do everything public health people do to contain an outbreak," says Dr. Jeffrey Levi, executive director of TFAH.


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12/18/13: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the name of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Center for Health Security.