With First Confirmed Case, What Risk Does MERS Pose To U.S.?

Despite MERS finally making its way to the U.S., health officials say the disease doesn't pose a serious threat.

With First Confirmed Case, What Risk Does MERS Pose To U.S.?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

For some time we’ve been hearing about the deadly MERS virus, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a flu-like disease that kills 30 percent of those who become infected. (Via Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

After the World Health Organization’s director-general declared the virus “a threat to the entire world” last year, health officials have reminded us over and over that it was just a matter of time before the disease spread from the Middle East to the U.S. (Via Al Jazeera)

Last week, the U.S. saw its first confirmed infection in an Indiana health care worker. So how worried should Americans be?

U.S. health officials are actually downplaying the risk. One CDC director said the first U.S. case "represents a very low risk to the general public." Another added, "In this interconnected world we live in, we expected [MERS] to make its way to the United States. … We have been preparing since 2012 for this possibility." The agency hasn’t even issued a travel advisory for the hardest-hit areas.

That’s because it turns out the virus’s main source is the one-hump camel, which explains why the outbreak started in the Middle East, and transmission person-to-person is rare. (Via CNN)

"There has not been a clear case of person to person transmission outside of the healthcare setting yet. So, I think we need to keep this in perspective." (Via NBC)

There have been cases of the virus spreading among humans, but it generally requires close contact. Health officials say you’d need prolonged exposure to an infected person to catch the disease yourself.

The Indiana patient is also reportedly doing well, and is expected to be discharged soon. No one who came in contact with him has reported symptoms yet. (Via CBS)

But a writer for Time says the U.S. got lucky and that new viruses are emerging all the time that might not be as slow-spreading as MERS.

"‚ÄčToday there's almost no spot on the planet ... so remote that someone couldn't make it to a heavily populated city like New York or Hong Kong in less than 24 hours, potentially carrying a new infectious disease with them."

WHO does have a few pointers if you plan on traveling to the affected regions: don't get too close to people with respiratory infections, wash your hands often, be careful what you eat and avoid contact with most animals. And, obviously, that includes camels.