CDC officials concerned with MERS, measles
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admit their concern after a second case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome was diagnosed in the United States earlier this week.
The first case was reported on May 2 in an American health care worker who had recently returned from the Middle East. The most recent case was diagnosed in a 44-year-old Saudi Arabian who was visiting family in Florida.
The major concern among health officials happened when two health care workers who had been caring for the ill man also became sick. It was announced Wednesday afternoon that following testing, both health care workers tested negative for MERS.
Twenty health care workers in Florida who had been in contact with the patient are being closely monitored and, thus far, are not affected.
These incidents bring attention to the challenges public health officials face every day in the battle against new viral diseases and the return of other illnesses that had believed to be nearly eliminated.
“The good news is the same type of preparedness activities and procedures for influenza and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), prepared us for MERS, as well,” said Tennessee State Epidemiologist Dr. Tim Jones, who added that the Middle East virus is “acting very much like SARS.”
Jones explained that a very long list of procedures, databases and systems are already in place, allowing health care officials to find patients, arrange quarantine and isolation, if necessary.
Epidemiologists have the capability of getting information out to patients, hospitals, nursing officials and others through a national notification system.
“We have pre-planning and teams set up for all of those type of activities,” Jones said.
One of the concerns about MERS, and other newly identified viral illnesses, is there is no vaccine.
In the case of the two U.S.-diagnosed MERS cases so far in May, the affected individuals were unaware they were contagious prior to being admitted to the hospital.
Jones explained that with a lot of viral illnesses, the person can start out feeling he or she has a mild, viral illness.
“It could just be a bad cold,” he said many may feel. But it’s not until a few days later, that the other symptoms appear.
“You can’t differentiate it, but your still infectious,” the doctor said.
The concern with the spread of MERS is that 30 percent of the affected individuals have died.
“I don’t think anyone is going to be surprised if it spreads,” Jones said.
One thing that has medical experts scratching their heads is they were expected a huge explosion of MERS last fall during the Hajj, when millions of Muslims return for the religious observance.
“We were just holding our breath and nothing happened,” Jones said. “No one knows why.”
The epidemiologist admitted that sometimes health officials “gear up and get ready for things (major disease outbreaks) and they don’t happen. It’s better to be prepared.”
In recent years, there have been numerous media reports about isolated and not-so-isolated outbreaks of new diseases. Jones said he thinks two different, but related, things are happening.
“Forty years ago, we still wouldn’t know MERS was happening,” the doctor said.
The capacity for testing for viral and bacterial infections “is so good now.”
He also believes the vast number of people who travel internationally are moving diseases from place to place. Jones said recently the world broke the record of 1 billion people crossing international borders in a year.
In 14 hours, a person can literally go from one side of the world to the other, Jones said.
“Now every time we have something, it has the risk of becoming international,” the doctor said.
Jones admitted that while battling new viral agents, medical experts are also having to address viral illnesses that were considered nearly eliminated. He cited the recent outbreaks of whooping cough and measles.
The doctor said in the whooping cough cases, it has mainly been a case of immunity from vaccines that have worn off. But for measles, he said “there is no excuse.”
In areas with large populations of parents who refuse to immunize their children for religious or other reasons, there have been measles outbreaks.
Jones said the best way the public can be protected from illness is to “make sure to be appropriately immunized.” He said this is especially important for people planning international travel.
“Talk to your doctor,” he said, adding that while many people already do that when planning to travel to third-world countries, “I don’t think that’s on our mind if we’re going to France or Great Britain.”
For people who are already ill, Jones said it’s important to prevent exposing other people.
“It’s not worth putting people at risk,” he said. “If you’re sick, stay home.”
One of the most difficult jobs public health officials face in keeping the public informed about illnesses that can harm them is avoiding causing panic.
“We don’t want to ‘cry wolf’ and worry people unnecessarily,” Jones said. “Balance is important.”
-From Staff Reports