When you hear international health experts say that the MERS virus has them “gravely worried” you have to ask yourself “Should I be gravely worried?”
That question took on a new urgency today when the CDC announced that the first MERS case has been isolated in Indiana.
Which brings us to the next question: “What is MERS, anyway?”
It’s a virus that showed up on the world stage a couple of years ago. Think of it as a super-powerful flu infection that has one of the highest death rates of any virus in history. One in three people who have been infected have died.
There is no vaccine. There is no medication.
The bug has mainly been seen in the Middle East, specifically the Arabian Peninsula. The first American case involves a man who was in Saudi Arabia, flew to London, then Chicago, and then hopped a bus to Indiana. He got sick with fever, chills, and shortness of breath — and some bright docs looked at his travel history, put 2 and 2 together and then tested him for MERS.
Right now he is pretty sick, on oxygen, but not on a respirator. Fingers crossed.
So what’s the good, the bad, and the ugly about this illness?
First, it’s rare. Less than 300 cases worldwide so far. But, of that number, close to 100 have died. It’s deadly.
Second, it’s not very contagious. In fact the people on the planes and bus with this guy are not considered to be high risk for getting sick. We don’t know why some people get hit with it, but don’t spread it easily.
Third, the germ is genetically related to the common cold. Weird when you think about that. Believe it or not, there is some link to camels spreading this to humans. What link that is, we can only guess.
Fourth, as I said, there is no vaccine, no medication, and no antibiotics to treat it. But … it’s really rare when you look at that 300 case figure. So don’t freak out if you pick up a cold-sniffles-cough type of bug. But do get checked for fever, chills, and problems breathing, especially if you have been to the Middle East.
I think what has people (even infectious disease experts) so freaked, is that this is a deadly germ that we don’t know much about. Only time with tell if this turns into some major public health problem. Right now, it is not.
In the meantime, don’t lose sleep over it. Let the experts continue to learn more about what it is, how it spreads, and how to treat it.
I’m personally more concerned at this point about the guy I sat near on an airplane the other day who was coughing what I hope was common cold virus particles into the cabin. I just don’t have time to get sick.
But I’m not sweating MERS, at least not yet.