Last month MERS reached American shores.
A Saudi Arabian health worker who flew to Chicago on April 24 and then traveled by bus to Indiana had tested positive for the deadly Middle East respiratory syndrome, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced — triggering an investigation to track down every person who had shared space with the unidentified elderly patient, including two Utahns.
No one in Utah has tested positive for the virus, but the investigation illustrates the importance of disease surveillance, said Salt Lake County medical officer and associate director, Dagmar Vitek at a health board meeting on Thursday.
The respiratory virus, which kills about a third of those it infects and has been found in camels and bats, originated on the Arabian Peninsula.
It raised alarms for the CDC because it is the same type of virus as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which killed hundreds in 2003, Vitek said. "We don’t know a lot about this virus, which is scary."
But it doesn’t appear to be as infectious as SARS and is thought to spread through close contact, which may be why it has hit health workers so hard, Vitek said.
Following the confirmation of MERS in Indiana, the CDC issued alerts to U.S. health workers, flight crews and border agents. Investigators began scouring passenger manifests and credit card records to identify individuals who had encountered the man anywhere along his path from Chicago to northwestern Indiana.
Two contacts were discovered in Davis County and Salt Lake County officials were asked to locate and question them, said Vitek, explaining it wasn’t at first known that the individuals lived outside Salt Lake City.
"We spent an entire weekend [in May], Saturday and Sunday, learning contacts and doing the investigation and then learned they were from Davis [County]," she said. "One was asymptomatic and the other ended up in the ER in Salt Lake with upper respiratory symptoms [but tested negative]."
Referring to the "herculean" task of tracking down anyone who might have been exposed — "the waiter at the restaurant, a taxi cab [driver], the flower vendor" — health board member and dentist Jeffrey Ward said jokingly, "I’m not going to fly anymore."
But Vitek said the two flight passengers who sat nearest the sick Indiana traveler weren’t infected.
There is no cure or vaccine for the virus; the only treatment is supportive care. And it is not known how long the MERS threat will last, or whether it will "burn itself out" like SARS, Vitek said.
There appears to be a seasonal spike of the virus in spring, but that could be due to more sophisticated testing, she said. Travelers can protect themselves and others by wearing face masks and carrying hand sanitizer, she said.
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