A new virus that has killed more than 100 people in the Middle East has been found in the United States for the first time, in an Indiana health care worker who recently returned from Saudi Arabia, federal health officials said Friday.
The man, whose name, age and exact occupation have not been released, is in stable condition in an Indiana hospital, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of respiratory diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He is in isolation and receiving oxygen.
A single American case of the virus — called MERS, for Middle East respiratory syndrome — is “a very low risk,” Schuchat said. The CDC is not recommending that anyone change travel plans to the Middle East.
But a team from the agency will travel to Indiana to assist in treatment and to retrace the patient’s contacts. He flew from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to Chicago via London on April 24, and then reached Indiana by bus. He fell ill on April 27 and was hospitalized the next day.
The typical incubation period for MERS is five days, and the patient is not known to have infected anyone else. Airline passenger lists will be used to contact everyone who sat near him.
But because bus companies often do not know who bought tickets or who sat where, “that bus ride may be a challenge,” said Tom Skinner, a CDC spokesman.
MERS is a coronavirus similar to SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed hundreds of people, mainly in China, in 2002 and 2003.
The newer virus was first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. Since then, about 400 cases have been reported to the World Health Organization; about a third have been fatal. (The numbers are inexact because of delays in laboratory confirmations.)
The virus is thought to have originated in bats, but it is also widespread in camels. While it has not spread easily between humans, there have been outbreaks within families and in hospitals, where patients have infected paramedics, nurses and doctors.
For unknown reasons, cases began surging in Saudi Arabia in March. Some experts fear that mutations made the virus more transmissible, while others believe that more camels are transmitting it and that carelessness in hospitals has helped it spread.
The classic symptoms are fever and shortness of breath, which indicates pneumonia, but there have been mild cases and unusual symptoms. The WHO suggests that hospitals test any patient who has returned from the Middle East within 14 days.
There have been large recent outbreaks in Saudi Arabia and in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and the first case in Egypt was just reported.
There is no cure. Patients may be put on ventilators and given antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections, in the hope that their immune systems will slowly defeat the virus.