Expert: MERS cases in U.S. likely to rise, S.C. prepared

Expert: MERS cases in U.S. likely to rise, S.C. prepared

Since it was first identified in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, has affected more than 700 people worldwide.

The viral respiratory illness causes fever, cough, sore throat and shortness of breath.

Health officials still believe the risk to the general public remains low with 3 people testing positive here in the U.S. But as people gear up for a heavy travel season, Dr. Timothy West, Chief of Infection Prevention at Roper St. Francis Hospital, says the numbers will likely go up in the states.

"I think the way it's expanding right now in the Arabian peninsula I think we will see an increasing amount of MERS in the U.S. and across the globe," West said.

West says he does not encourage people to change travel plans, but to be cautious of traveling abroad to places in the Middle East and Mediterranean. It's especially important to avoid agricultural areas of the Middle East, West said.

Camels have already been identified as possibly carrying the virus and its also been found in a bat.

MERS is airborne and contagious, and West says you can get it from close contact with an infected person and it can even spread by just a handshake.

"You can get it on your hands, in your eyes, so hand hygiene is extremely important," West said.

West says some people get very sick from the respiratory illness, while others may have mild to no symptoms at all. The duration of symptoms from MERS could last up to 14 days.

Overall, the message West wants to send is one of caution and awareness, but to also let people know the state is prepared.

"We have an active health department ready to respond and the blood test has to be obtained by the CDC and they have to be taken care of by the health department so they are notified very quickly", West said.

There is no vaccine for MERS but patients can be treated to relieve the symptoms.

The World Health Organization has confirmed 171 deaths worldwide caused by the illness. No deaths have been reported here in the U.S.

The CDC advises travelers to help protect themselves by taking everyday preventive actions:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds.
  • 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.

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