Study: MERS easily spread in hospitals

Infectious disease experts warn that the deadly Middle East coronavirus is a serious risk in hospitals because it easily spreads in healthcare environments from patient to patient, from the transfer of sick patients to other hospitals and even from patients to healthy staff members.

The Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) has killed 38 people in six countries from 64 confirmed cases since the virus first appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2012, according to the World Health Organization. In a study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, an international investigative team of infectious disease specialists found it takes a little more than five days for a person to get sick after being exposed to the virus. It takes seven days for the virus to spread from one person to the next.

So far, no cases have been confirmed in the United States, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends hospitals here follow standard contact and airborne precautions to care for hospitalized patients who meet the case definition of the MERS infection. The acute respiratory infection, which is from the same coronavirus family as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), causes coughing, fever and pneumonia. Among the confirmed cases, two involved healthcare staff, a nurse who had worked with other nurses caring for an infected patient, and an ICU physician who had cared for and been directly exposed to MERS patients.

The study team compared the MERS cases to the 2003 outbreak of SARS in Toronto, which it also investigated. Their findings indicated surprising similarities between MERS and SARS. "Both are very deadly viruses and easily transferred between people, and even between healthcare facilities," said Trish Perl, in a statement about the research.

To stem the outbreak, health officials in countries with known cases have isolated and treated patients, tightened infection control procedures, followed vigorous cleaning procedures with stronger disinfectants and treated patients while wearing masks, gowns and gloves.

No cure exists for MERS, but Perl says early detection makes a difference. Three out of four died among those who were diagnosed while already ill and in the hospital, while only three out of 19 died among those who were diagnosed early after admission to a hospital.

A rapid test to detect MERS is the next priority in containing future MERS outbreaks, Perl says, noting medical experts also must determine what precautions are most important in preventing its spread, and what screening criteria need to be in place to prevent outbreaks from hospital-to-hospital patient transfers.

To learn more:
- read the study
- here's the statement
- check out the CDC's recommendations
- see the WHO's update