How worried should travelers be about MERS?
Travelers heading through Logan and other US airports are now seeing signs on the security line warning them about Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked airports to alert travelers to certain countries on the Arabian Peninsula to take precautions such as washing their hands often, avoiding touching their face, and avoiding close contact with sick people.
“We’re working with TSA to get them posted,” said CDC spokesperson Christine Pearson. The agency posted similar signs when the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic was underway and in May issued an alert to Caribbean travelers to protect themselves from mosquito bites. A mosquito-borne illness called chikungunya has been circulating on more than a dozen islands in the Caribbean for the past few months.
In terms of the MERS alert, the CDC said the highest likelihood of contracting the virus is in Arabian Peninsula and Middle East countries including Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Some of these countries haven’t seen any MERS cases but are in close enough proximity that public health officials are worried the virus could spread there.
The CDC says doctors should consider testing for MERS in patients who develop symptoms including a fever, pneumonia, severe cough, or breathing difficulties within two weeks after traveling to one of these countries or if they come in very close contact with someone who’s infected.
But public health officials aren’t worried enough to advise against travel to that list of countries. The World Health Organization determined on Thursday that MERS has not yet reached the point of a public health emergency, despite a surge in cases that began in March. There have been more than 535 confirmed cases worldwide and 145 deaths since the virus was first identified in April 2012.
What’s reassuring is that the infection doesn’t spread easily from person to person. The two individuals who came to the United States with the infections have so far not infected anyone else. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health contacted 90 people in the state earlier this week who traveled on planes with an infected health care worker making a connection through Logan airport.