MERS virus spreads, but not yet a global health emergency

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus does not yet constitute a global public health emergency, the World Health Organization (WHO) said this week, but the disease may be spreading.

There are more than 500 reported cases of the virus--which causes coughing, fever and sometimes fatal pneumonia--in Saudi Arabia alone, and it has spread to neighboring European and Asian countries, killing about 30 percent of those infected, Reuters reported.

There are two confirmed cases of MERS in the U.S.--one in Indiana, where the patient was treated and released into home isolation after the hospital enacted special protocol, and one in Florida. The patient in Florida spent four hours in the emergency department before seeing a doctor, and a total of eight hours in the hospital before being isolated, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Workers who treated a MERS patient in Florida now display respiratory symptoms and the hospital is testing them for the virus, according to NBC News. The two workers, one of whom was treated and sent home and the other of whom remains in a special isolation room at the hospital, came into contact with the patient without a mask, Antonio Crespo, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and chief quality officer for P. Phillips Hospital in Orlando told NBC. Another 20 healthcare workers at two Florida hospitals who may have been exposed to the virus are also being regularly tested for MERS and isolating themselves at home.

Members of the WHO Emergency Committee said "the seriousness of the situation had increased in terms of public health impact, but that there is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission," according to a statement. However, concern over the situation increased significantly.

Although the disease is not extremely contagious and is generally spread after close, prolonged contact, it is more deadly than common illnesses like the flu, according to the article. Ken Michaels, M.D., of the Florida Department of Health said hospitals should prepare for MERS cases. "I don't think we've seen the last of this," he told NBC News. "We are going to see more travel from this part of the world."  

To learn more:
- here's the WHO statement
- check out NBC's report
- read the Reuters article
- here's the Chicago Tribune piece