500 airline passengers possibly exposed to MERS

500 airline passengers possibly exposed to MERS

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ATLANTA -

It is a major task: find and alert about 500 United States airline travelers from 34 different states they may have been exposed to a deadly new respiratory virus coming out of the Middle East, known as MERS.

That’s what the CDC's Dr. David Swerdlow, the MERS incident commander, and his team are doing right now.

“We're telling them that, unfortunately, there was a patient with MERS on their airplane, and while we don't think there's a big risk, we don't know at this point. It’s a new virus," said Swerdlow.

The CDC is working with state health departments, asking the passengers to donate a blood sample, to see if there is any evidence they were exposed to MERS on their flight. Dr. Swerdlow says the serum tests will hopefully help them learn more about how MERS is transmitted.

“It's all out of an abundance of caution, we don't necessarily think people are at high-risk, we just don't want to take any chances with this virus," said Swerdlow.

The 44 year old Saudi healthcare worker, who became the second imported U.S. case of MERS, developed a cough and fever on May 1 while traveling on four flights. He flew from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to London, and from London to Boston. Then he stopped over at Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport before flying on to Orlando. Nine days later he was hospitalized there.

The Georgia Department of Public Health's Dr. Pat O'Neal, the state’s Director of Health Protection, says the state is reaching out to 90 Georgians on the two U.S. flights, most traveling from Boston to Atlanta.

“I'm not terribly alarmed, I'm not terribly frightened. But I do feel we need to keep folks aware of the possibility that we will receive more cases. And we do need to be vigilant," said O'Neal.

Georgia hospitals and ERs are already on alert, thanks to state health officials. But, Dr. O'Neal says his department is also sending out letters on Wednesday to thousands of primary care doctors, pediatricians and urgent care centers. They are asking them to watch for MERS and call the state if they suspect a patient may be ill with the virus. Dr. O’Neal says they’re asking health care providers to ask patients with flu-like symptoms about recent travel to the Middle East, a hotbed for MERS right now with more than 500 of the cases originating there.

“We need to know travel histories when we have anyone who shows up with symptoms of respiratory disease," said O'Neal.

MERS is concerning because it's deadly, killing about a third of those infected. There's no treatment, or vaccine for this virus, but there hasn't been any sustained human to human transmission. Dr. Swerdlow says we need to be alert, but not alarmed.

“Do we think there's a risk a few cases could come back? Absolutely. We need to be prepared for those. Do we think there's need for widespread concern? No," said Swerdlow.

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