Lehigh Valley

Local hospitals prep against life-threatening MERS virus

Local hospitals prep against life-threatening MERS virus

The Centers for Disease Control has confirmed yet another case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the United States.

It marks the third confirmed case in the U.S., and the first case believed to have been transmitted inside U.S. borders.

According to the CDC, about 30 percent of people confirmed to have the virus that causes MERS have died. The CDC reports that the risk of getting MERS in the U.S. is still low.

In a press conference with the Pennsylvania Medical Society Monday, experts said the number of MERS cases worldwide has tripled in the last six weeks.

"It puts us on guard in this country to be prepared ahead of time because the number of cases is, of course, quite small, but the illness is quite severe so we want to take precautions," said Dr. Luther Rhodes, chief of infection control with the Lehigh Valley Health Network.

Part of why the risk is relatively low is because of its origin in the Middle East.

Experts said MERS is spread through close human contact, including sneezing and coughing.

Family members and those caring for those with MERS have an increased risk of becoming infected.

While MERS has had minimal impact on the U.S. to date, hospitals throughout the country have been preparing for a possible outbreak for about a year.

"We have the equipment, manuals, and training to respond. We are rolling that out," Rhodes said.

Part of the response plan, Rhodes said, is making sure health care professionals are prepared to identify those who may be infected.

"People with potential MERS are going to stand out in a couple of things. One, they will have fever, cough, shortness of breath. And the special history of traveled from the Middle East within prior two weeks," Rhodes said.

A high percentage of the reported cases have been in people who traveled to the Middle East.

According to Rhodes, state laboratories are also able to test for MERS.

Hospitals have also been instructed on how to handle patients that become ill with MERS. This includes placing those patients in airborne isolation rooms.

Health care facilities will also need to take extra precautions to keep workers safe, since they are more vulnerable. Hospitals have ordered special gowns and masks to prevent the spread.

Experts said the biggest obstacle will be educating the public about the spread and prevention of MERS. Doctors encourage people to frequently wash their hands and avoid contact with those displaying symptoms.

Those who have traveled to the Middle East and display symptoms within two weeks of the trip should contact a health care provider.

"Notify your doctor, or if you are ill enough to head to a hospital, give them a heads up. Call ahead of time. Say, 'I have a fever, a cough, and I have reason to worry about MERS.' That would be a tremendously beneficial thing to do so the team receiving you is fully prepared to expedite your care and minimize exposure to other individuals," Rhodes said.

Rhodes said individuals should also take action to prevent the spread.

"Cover your cough with a substantial piece of material, like a washcloth…Cover every cough." Rhodes said.

According to the CDC, there isn't a vaccine to prevent MERS and there is currently no specific treatment.

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