Two cases of MERS have been confirmed in the U.S. since the beginning of May. Both of these cases were health care workers and travelers from Saudi Arabia to the U.S. These individuals are expected to recover fully and no persons who were in close contact with the infected persons have been found to have the disease.
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is viral respiratory illness first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. The virus, a coronavirus, is a common cause of mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illness in humans. Most individuals will contract a coronavirus infection at some time in their lives, usually as a child. Many will have multiple coronavirus infections in their lifetime.
This group of viruses was first identified in the 1960s. Its name comes from the Latin word for crown, “corona,” since the virus has crown-like spikes on its surface. There are five coronaviruses that can infect people, including the more well-known virus that causes SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). Fortunately, there have not been any reported cases of SARS since 2004.
People usually get coronavirus infections in the fall and winter; however, one can get infected at any time of the year. It is spread from person to person through the air by coughing and sneezing and by close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands. It may also spread by touching contaminated surfaces or objects and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
Symptoms of coronavirus infection are those seen with the common cold and other upper respiratory illnesses including runny nose, cough, sore throat, headache, body aches, and fever. Individuals with immune compromise, the elderly, and those with chronic lung or heart disease may experience lower respiratory tract illness, such as pneumonia.
In MERS, as with SARS, the symptoms can become more severe. Individuals infected with this type of virus may experience respiratory distress, that is, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing requiring hospitalization for breathing support. This is called acute respiratory distress syndrome or ARDS. Approximately one-third of MERS cases around the world have been fatal. However, one-fourth of cases had minimal or no symptoms.
Currently, there are no cases of MERS in Virginia and the CDC and Virginia Department of Health do not expect the infection to be a widespread problem in the U.S. Specialized laboratory testing must be done to determine if someone has been infected with the virus.
Since viruses cannot be killed with antibiotics, there is no specific treatment for MERS. The body’s immune system will eventually rid the body of the virus. Treatment of severe infections consists of respiratory support and treatment of complications, such as pneumonia. No vaccine is available to protect individuals against human coronavirus infection. Most people who contract a coronavirus will improve on their own with rest, fluids, a healthy diet, and over-the-counter symptomatic medications.
It is important to exercise general preventive measures against all viruses. Measures to reduce your risk of infection include washing your hands frequently during the day; keeping common surfaces and objects disinfected; not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth; covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze; staying home if you are sick; and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.