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Logan travelers warned about MERS virus

Patient flew through Mass.

A man who flew through Boston’s Logan International Airport earlier this month has come down with the second US case of a new and deadly respiratory virus first seen in Saudi Arabia, and health officials are contacting at least 80 Massachusetts residents who were on the same flights.

Federal health officials reported Monday that the man diagnosed with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome had flown on May 1 from the Saudi city of Jeddah through London, Boston, and Atlanta en route to Florida.

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Public health officials emphasized that the chances of the virus spreading to other travelers on the plane were slim and that they were notifying passengers as a precaution.

“We haven’t seen cases yet where the virus has spread among passengers on a plane,” said Dr. Larry Madoff, director of epidemiology and immunization at the state Department of Public Health. “Usually there has to be close contact, like family members or doctors providing treatment to infected individuals” for the virus to spread.

“We’re actively investigating all of the passengers from Massachusetts on all the flights he was on,” Madoff added. “We are also working to investigate people who might have been exposed to him in the airport.”

The patient, a health care worker from Saudi Arabia who may have treated patients infected with MERS before traveling — reported feeling unwell during his flight from Jeddah to London and continued to feel ill on subsequent flights, with symptoms that included fever, chills, and a slight cough, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. On May 9, he was admitted to a Florida hospital, where he is doing well.

A relatively new form of coronavirus, MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. So far, there have been 538 confirmed cases of MERS in 14 countries, including the two cases reported in the United States over the past several days. Most of these people developed severe acute respiratory illness, with fever, cough, and shortness of breath, and 145 people have died.

CDC officials do not know where the virus came from or exactly how it spreads. “The risk to the US general public from MERS still remains very low,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases, said in a statement. The agency is not recommending that Americans alter their travel plans to the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, where MERS cases have originated.

“I think the CDC is positioning it right,” said Dr. Wayne Marasco, an infectious disease physician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who is working on developing a treatment for MERS. “At this point, there’s no cause for alarm.”

CDC officials have advised those who develop fever and respiratory symptoms within 14 days after traveling to the region to alert their doctors and mention their recent travel.

“It’s certainly on our radar screen,” said Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Many of us were surprised it has taken so long for there to be cases in this country; in this era of international travel, viruses don’t respect borders.”

The hospital was first warned by state and federal health officials months ago to prepare for possible cases and to test patients for the virus who had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia if they were admitted to the hospital with respiratory symptoms such as pneumonia, high fever, breathing difficulties, and severe cough.

Those who test positive, Sax said, should be placed in isolation in a specially ventilated room, similar to precautions taken in those infected with measles, which is thought to be far more contagious than MERS.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com.
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