Blog Post

TSA is posting MERS warnings at airports. Should you be worried?

May 15, 2014

    Juliette Mullin, Editor

    The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has been around for a couple years now, first surfacing in Saudi Arabia in fall 2012. In recent weeks, the coronavirus—which has killed more than a quarter of the people it has infected—has arrived in the United States, infecting two people.

    As a result, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is posting signs at 22 major airports warning travelers about the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a deadly coronavirus that first appeared in 2012 and infected two people in the United States this month.

    The warning signs urge individuals who fall ill within 14 days of travelling to the Arabian Peninsula to call a doctor.

    Is this a global health emergency? 

    But overall, the airport signs say the infection risk to most travelers remains low. This echoes the message being sent by both the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO).

    Since MERS first appeared in 2012, it has infected more than 500 people and killed 145. Although the majority of the cases have been in Saudi Arabia, the disease has spread to other parts of the Middle East, Asia, North Africa, Europe, and now the United States.

    WHO Director-General Margaret Chan once called MERS "a threat to the entire world," but the global health agency has not labelled the disease a global emergency. On Wednesday, Keiji Fukuda, an assistant director-general of WHO, said, "Calling a global emergency in a world which has a lot of urgent issues going on is a major act. You have to have really solid information to say this is a global emergency." (Last week, WHO did declare growing polio outbreaks to be a global health emergency.)

    Despite the increases in cases, WHO says there is no proof of MERS's sustained human-to-human transmission.

    Similarly, CDC Director Tom Frieden has said, "Our experience with MERS so far suggests that the risk to the general public is extremely low." He says that there are no plans to raise the country's health alert level for international travel.

    How an Indiana hospital contained the first U.S. MERS case

    What hospitals should be doing

    Even though MERS has not escalated to the level of a global health emergency, some scientists say health officials in countries that have not yet seen many (or any) MERS cases should nonetheless be on the lookout for symptoms. (The Netherlands just reported its first case of MERS on Wednesday.)

    Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, says, "MERS is still primarily a problem in the Middle East. But if one of those infected people gets on a plane and lands in London, Toronto, New York, or Hong Kong and transmits to another 30 people, everyone will have a different view."

    In the United States, hospitals are taking steps to recognize the symptoms of MERS quickly. The illness often begins with flulike symptoms, but it can lead to pneumonia and breathing issues. In severe cases, it can cause kidney failure and death.

    "This is not like measles ... not like chickenpox — which are [both] highly communicable diseases," says Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Trish Perl, adding, "But the reality is that there is something in health care [centers] where the communicability is much more prominent."

    How a deadly coronavirus spread through a hospital

    Experts say the key to preventing the spread of MERS in hospitals is isolating patients quickly and wearing the necessary gear. This means changing out surgical gowns, gloves and masks every time a staff member enters or exits an isolation room, says Perl.

    "Every single person in this emergency room or any emergency will tell you they're super, super busy. They're too busy to do this or that and whatever," she told NPR's Jason Beaubien. "How do they prioritize in their list of business what are the most important things to do?"

    Infectious disease expert Daniel Lucey says getting all hospital employees to follow standard infection control procedures at all times was keep to stopping the global outbreak of SARS in 2003.

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