MERS in West Michigan? Odds are very low

The MERS Virus (Photo courtesy CNN; May 2, 2014).

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The first United States case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, was confirmed in Indiana. 24 Hour News 8 went to local experts to find out what the risk of infection is to West Michigan, just one state away.

The infected man flew from Saudi Arabia to London to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on April 24. He then took a bus to northwest Indiana, the Centers for Disease Control said Friday. He started developing symptoms and went to a hospital in Munster, Indiana, where he was eventually diagnosed with MERS. A West Michigan doctor told 24 Hour News 8 he was on supplemental oxygen, and that doctors should know within three or four days if he will make a recovery.

As far as risk in West Michigan, Dr. Russell Lampen, an infectious disease doctor at Spectrum Health, told 24 Hour News 8 Friday afternoon “I don’t think that there’s a need for widespread panic at this point.”

That’s because, while the disease is dangerous to humans, Lampen said it appears to be relatively difficult to pass between humans.

According to the CDC, there have been 401 cases of MERS in 12 countries since it was first discovered in April 2012. 93 of those people have died. Most of the cases have occured in countries in or near the Arabian Peninsula, but there have also been a handful of cases in other places like the United Kingdom, France and Italy.

“The thing that I think is concerning about this virus is, while there have been not that many cases reported, the case fatality rate is quite high,” said Lampen.

There’s currently no vaccine for the virus, nor is there any way to treat the virus itself, doctors have to treat patient symptoms. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. The Lampen said the disease attacks the lungs and weakens the body, making it more susceptible to other diseases, like pneumonia. MERS is an airborne virus, but 24 Hour News 8 was told research suggests it does seem to be difficult to pass from human to human.

“The flu is a far more effective virus for spreading person to person looking at just the small number of a cases there have been in the Middle East, it doesn’t lead us to believe this is a very contagious virus,” said Kent County Health Officer Adam London. When asked about the risk of transmission in O’Hare airport, or on that bus the infected man took, London said, “the CDC seems to think that the risk of a person to person transmission here was pretty low.”

Previous cases of person to person transmission usually involved close contact, usually people caring for or living with the infected person.

When 24 Hour News 8 asked London what the odds were that the Indiana case would lead to a Midwest epidemic, he replied that the odds were, “very low. I think we all need to be aware of it, and certainly if you have shortness of breath and coughing, and influenza-like symptoms, you should talk with your physician, and your physician should.what your travel history is.”

The disease can show up within 14 days, and the CDC asks people who travel to the Arabian Peninsula who start to show symptoms to see a doctor and mention recent travel. The CDC is not recommending that people change traveling plans because of MERS.

Travelers are asked to monitor their health closely, wash hands and avoid contact with people who are ill.

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