Health and Science

MERS: Controlling a virus with a 30% fatality rate

The global spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome—better known as MERS—is grabbing international headlines, dominating TV newscasts and capturing a lot of social media chatter.

It's easy to see why. In recent days, as many as 18 countries have reported cases, including the At least 571 people have contracted the virus, resulting in 171 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. WHO says the spread of MERS has become more urgent and serious.

This undated electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows a novel coronavirus particle, also known as the MERS virus.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that federal, state and local officials in Florida, where the second American case of MERS was discovered this month, "are taking action to minimize the risk of spread of the virus." The other U.S. case was reported in Indiana. Neither case has been fatal.

But has the talk matched the actual threat the MERS virus poses? Yes and no, said John Palisano, a professor of biology at Sewanee, The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

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"The death rate of 30 percent of MERS cases is certainly tragic, and the virus is easily transferable among people," Palisano said. "However, even though we need to be worried, I'm not sure it's as dangerous as people think, because we may be able to control it."

Symptoms of MERS

MERS is name of the illness caused by the coronovirus, MERS-coV. Because it's a virus and not a bacteria, there is no specific medicine or antibiotic to use against it.

It's also not a superbug. Superbugs are bacteria-based organisms, such as the similarly named MRSA, which have become resistant to the antibiotics used to treat patients.

But one thing MERS is—it's new. It was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. In fact it takes its name from ts region of origin, the Middle East. That's also where the majority of cases have been documented. So far, every reported case of MERS worldwide has been linked to countries in the Arabian Peninsula.

The CDC says it doesn't know exactly where the virus originated, but the likely source is an animal species—specifically, camels.

People affected by the MERS virus develop a severe acute respiratory illness, with symptoms including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. The virus has a current fatality rate of 30 percent, according to the CDC. What medical professionals do is react to the symptoms to control the virus.

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The real trouble with MERS may be how easily it spreads. The virus can go from person to person who are in close contact with each other, and that includes transmission from infected patients to health-care workers in hospitals.

The two MERS patients in the U.S. are health care providers who were working in Saudi Arabia.

Experts do not yet know precisely how the virus is spread—whether it's by coughing, or sneezing or simply touching someone.

"We just don't know enough yet on how it's being passed from person to person," said CDC spokesman Jason McDonald in a phone call with CNBC.

However, the CDC advises people to help protect themselves from respiratory illnesses by washing their hands often, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoiding touching their own eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands, and disinfecting frequently-touched surfaces.

WHO India: Asia can control the spread of Mers
WHO India: Asia can control the spread of Mers

Lesson from SARS

While there is concern that the virus is spreading globally, the CDC does not recommend that Americans change their travel plans—yet. It does advise people traveling to the Arabian Peninsula who work in a health care setting to follow CDC's recommendations for infection control.

"It's definitely more of a risk for health care workers who can have contact with people with the virus, " said CDC's McDonald. "And since we don't know how it's spread, they need to take serious precautions."

Public health officials are working with airlines to identify and notify U.S. travelers who may have been in close contact with the Florida patient on any of the several flights that individual took in order to reach the U.S.

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Federal health officials have posted health warnings at nearly two dozen airports in cities including New York, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Boston, Las Vegas, Seattle, San Diego and San Francisco. They've told customs staff to be on alert for sick travelers.

The major U.S. airports have quarantine stations for travelers exhibiting symptoms. But that may be hard to enforce, said University of the South's Palisano.

If history is a positive guide to what may happen with MERS, Palisano said the SARS outbreak from 2002 to 2003 may help. Nearly 8,100 people around the world caught the respiratory virus, resulting in the deaths of 774 people. But there have been no reported case of SARS since 2004.

"SARS was much worse, but we learned and were able to control it," Palisano explained. "I think we can do the same with MERS."

By CNBC's Mark Koba.