NEW YORK — Federal health officials are working to track down travelers who may have been in close contact with an American infected with a mysterious virus that has sickened hundreds in the Middle East.
The man fell ill April 27 after flying to the U.S. April 24 from Saudi Arabia where he was a health care worker. He has been confirmed as the first American infected with the virus.
He is hospitalized in good condition in northwest Indiana with Middle East respiratory syndrome, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Indiana health officials said Friday.
The MERS virus is not highly contagious and this case “represents a very low risk to the broader, general public,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat in a CDC briefing.
It was not clear how many travelers in close contact with the man may have been exposed to the virus.
Also, it is not known yet how he was infected, Schuchat said.
Saudi Arabia has been at the center of an outbreak of MERS that began two years ago. The virus has spread among health care workers, most notably at four Saudi facilities last spring.
Officials didn’t specify the American’s job in Saudi Arabia or whether he treated MERS patients.
Overall, at least 400 people have had the respiratory illness, and more than 100 people have died. All had ties to the Middle East region or to people who traveled there.
Experts said it was just a matter of time before MERS showed up in the U.S., as it has in Europe and Asia.
“Given the interconnectedness of our world, there’s no such thing as, ‘It stays over there and it can’t come here,’ ” said Dr. Ian Lipkin, a Columbia University MERS expert.MERS belongs to the coronavirus family that includes the common cold and SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed some 800 people in 2003.
The MERS virus has been found in camels, but officials don’t know how it is spreading to humans. It can spread from person to person, but officials believe that happens only after close contact. Not all those exposed to the virus become ill.
It appears to be unusually lethal — by some estimates, it has killed nearly a third of the people it sickened. That’s a far higher percentage than seasonal flu or other routine infections. But it is not as contagious as flu, measles or other diseases. There is no vaccine or cure and there’s no specific treatment except to relieve symptoms.
Federal and state health officials on Friday have released only limited information about the U.S. case: On April 24, the man flew from Riyadh — Saudi Arabia’s capital and largest city — to the United States, with a stop in London. He landed in Chicago and took a bus to nearby Indiana. He didn’t become sick until April 27, the CDC said.
He went to the emergency room at Community Hospital in Munster the next day with a fever, cough and shortness of breath. He was admitted and tested for the MERS virus because he had traveled from the Middle East. The hospital said he was in good condition.
As a precaution, the hospital said it would monitor the man’s family and health care workers who treated him for any signs of infection.
There’s been a recent surge in MERS illnesses in Saudi Arabia; cases have tended to increase in the spring. Experts think the uptick may partly be due to more and better surveillance. Columbia’s Lipkin has an additional theory — there may be more virus circulating in the spring, when camels are born.
The CDC has issued no warnings about travel to countries involved in the outbreak. However, anyone who develops fever, cough or shortness of breath within two weeks of traveling in or near the Arabian Peninsula should see their doctor and mention their travel history.