US MERS Cases Have Not Infected Any Healthcare Workers

June 17, 2014

Two public health agencies today announced good news about the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it has confirmed that 2 men who brought the virus from Saudi Arabia to the United States did not spread it to healthcare workers or household members. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that although the global outbreak of MERS-CoV remains worrisome, the upsurge in cases that began in April has weakened, and that "there is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission." At the same time, WHO is concerned about possible MERS-CoV exposure for the influx of Muslim pilgrims to Saudi Arabia in July during Ramadan and in October for the Hajj.

WHO has received official reports of 701 laboratory-confirmed MERS cases and at least 249 deaths since the beginning of the outbreak in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, according to the latest count from the agency. Mounting evidence, WHO noted, supports the hypothesis that camels have spread the virus to humans. Most of the cases have occurred in Saudi Arabia. Of the 402 cases in Saudi Arabia reported between April 11 and June 9, 27% involve healthcare workers.

Individuals caring for infected individuals in the close quarters of a home or hospital face the greatest risk of catching MERS-CoV, according to public health authorities.

US hospitals in Indiana and Florida that treated the 2 infected healthcare workers from Saudi Arabia — the cases were unrelated — earlier this spring succeeded in containing the virus. In its announcement today, the CDC said it tested specimens from healthcare workers who cared for the men with both serology and real-time reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction testing. All the healthcare workers tested negative for both active and previous infection with MERS-CoV.

The CDC took the same steps with the 2 patients' household members, and these individuals also tested negative for both active and previous MERS-CoV infection, according to the agency.

"The negative results among the contacts that CDC considered at highest risk for MERS-CoV infection are reassuring," said David Swerdlow, MD, the CDC's point person on the virus, in a news release. "Today the risk of MERS-CoV infection in the United States remains low, but it is important that we remain vigilant and quickly identify and respond to any additional importation."

The CDC reported less-definitive findings about individuals who traveled with the 2 infected healthcare workers both in their airline flights from Saudi Arabia to the United States and their subsequent bus and plane trips here. The CDC, along with state, local, and foreign public health agencies, have contacted almost all of these travelers. None who have been tested show any sign they had been infected. They had been considered at a lower risk all along. However, the investigation and serological testing of these individuals continues, "and the situation could change," the CDC said.

More information about MERS is available on the CDC Web site.

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