Health Department examines local MERS risks

This May 14, 2014 image, provided by Denver International Airport, shows newly-erected signs warning travelers about he danger of the MERS virus, at Denver International Airport. MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, is a respiratory illness that begins with flu-like fever and cough but can lead to shortness of breath, pneumonia and death. The airport says the signs were posted Wednesday, May 14, 2014 at all of its screening areas at the direction of the Centers for Disease Control. (AP Photo/Denver International Airport)

(WPRI) — Local officials are reacting to a growing concern that the deadly virus MERS could be spreading to the United States, after dozens were exposed to the respiratory infection at two Florida hospitals.

The Rhode Island Department of Health says it is receiving regular updates from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and report they have sent a health advisory to all local physicians and emergency departments statewide.

Two Orlando healthcare workers who were exposed to the patient with the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) virus have tested negative for the disease. As of 4 p.m. Wednesday, the hospital is waiting for test results for 18 other employees who may have been exposed to the virus and were sent home as a precaution.

“It has a very high mortality rate. About a third of the people who have acquired this infection died of it,” said Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. William Schaffner.

The virus causes coughing, fever, and sometimes pneumonia. More than 500 people in the Middle East have been infected this year, with the majority of cases in Saudi Arabia.

The infected person came to the United States from Saudi Arabia on May 1, and took four flights from Jeddah to London, then to Boston, then to Atlanta, and finally Orlando. While flying, the traveler developed flu-like symptoms and was admitted to the hospital in Orlando one week later.

The CDC has begun posting warnings at major airports that read:

  • The health department says risk to the general public is low
  • MERS does not spread easily from person to person
  • The best protection is to wash your hands frequently

The World Health Organization is keeping an eye on MERS and says despite a recent spike in cases, it is not yet a global health emergency. A patient in Indiana who was hospitalized with MERS last week has since been released.

There is no cure or vaccine for the virus.

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