How Dangerous Is MERS?

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An Indian worker wears a mouth and nose mask next to camels as he works at his Saudi employer's farm on May 12, 2014 outside Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has urged its citizens and foreign workers to wear masks and gloves when dealing with camels to avoid spreading the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus as health experts said the animal was the likely source of the disease.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

With the second confirmed case of Middle East respiratory syndrome confirmed in the United States, health care workers are going to great lengths to ensure that the virus -- believed to jump to humans from camels in the Middle East -- remains confined to the man who traveled to Florida from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Even so, virus experts are hopeful that MERS will remain scarce.

Although no one is ready to rule out a worst case scenario (in which the virus would morph and become much more contagious than it is now), experts say there are indications that MERS won’t be as deadly here as it has been in the Middle East.

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First, even in the Middle East, secondary infections have been found primarily in health care workers.

“And even for health care workers to get it, they probably have to make a pretty significant break in protocol,” said Stanley Perlman, a professor of microbiology and pediatrics at the University of Iowa who has studied coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS for over 30 years. “l think it's mostly in the deep lungs, so to have it spread you'd have to cough violently and have person right in front of you. Or if you were suctioning the patient or obtaining specimens from the lungs and doing it inappropriately, you could get infected."

Even though public health officials are tracking down hundreds of passengers who were on the same flights as the second patient, they say it's out of a conscious effort to be overly cautious.

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The U.S. MERS cases are “unwelcome, but not unexpected,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden said in a media call Monday.

“The risk to the general public remains very low," added Dr. Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general with the U.S. Public Health Service and director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

Indeed, the virus is not as deadly as it first appeared to be. Although there have been 145 deaths out of 538 cases so far, according to the World Health Organization, that's down from the roughly 60 percent death rate initially reported. And it may fall even further as more cases are identified, Frieden said.

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