How Authorities Hope to Keep MERS From Spreading in the US

PHOTO: Tourists wear masks as a precaution against the MERS virus at the Gyeongbok Palace on June 4, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Tourists wear masks as a precaution against the MERS virus at the Gyeongbok Palace on June 4, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea.

The MERS outbreak continues to grow in South Korea, with 36 infected and more than 1,600 people in quarantine just over two weeks after that country’s patient zero was identified last month.

Even 17 camels -- in various zoos -- have been quarantined as an extra precaution, according to The Associated Press.

But it’s unlikely that the U.S. will see the same kind of outbreak, according to experts.

In South Korea, the infected patient zero had recently returned from the Arabian Peninsula, but was not immediately asked about his travel history or put into isolation. As he looked for medical relief, he visited two hospitals and two outpatient facilities, according to a World Health Organization report. As a result, the report said, there were “multiple opportunities for exposure among health care workers and other patients.”

PHOTO: Tourists wear masks as a precaution against the MERS virus at the Gyeongbok Palace on June 4, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Tourists wear masks as a precaution against the MERS virus at the Gyeongbok Palace on June 4, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea.

However, the outbreak in South Korea and the ongoing rare cases in the Middle East are unlikely to lead to mass infection in the U.S., the experts said. Last year, two people were diagnosed with MERS after traveling from the Arabian Peninsula and neither is believed to have infected anyone else in the United States

Currently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a Level 2 warning for people traveling near the Arabian Peninsula, where the vast majority of the cases have been found. The CDC warns travelers to avoid contact with camels and camel products and to call a doctor if they develop respiratory symptoms within 14 days of traveling to the area. There are no travel warnings for South Korea.

Dr. Stephen Morse, an infectious disease expert at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said officials learned important lessons with the spread of SARS about how viruses can spread across the globe.

“There are informational signs [in several languages] at each international point of entry warning people coming from areas with known cases to see a doctor and tell the doctor of their travel history if they become sick with symptoms like fever and respiratory difficulties,” Morse said.

Rather than using just high-tech medical devices to look for symptoms and stop infected travelers from arriving, he said, authorities likely will use such simple communication so that travelers, local expatriot communities and health care providers are aware of the risks and signs of the virus.

“As we saw in Korea and elsewhere, the key is for the local health care providers to be aware of the possibility and take appropriate infection control precautions from the beginning,” Morse said. “At this point, I don't anticipate travel restrictions and think they're not likely to be very practical or helpful."

Should anyone arrive in the U.S. and be diagnosed with the MERS virus, health officials could trace their contacts to identify anyone else who may have been exposed, and then put them in quarantine quickly before they become contagious. Such techniques were used when patients in the U.S. were diagnosed with Ebola last year.

ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser said it’s critical that travelers to the Arabian Peninsula be aware of risks and immediately tell their health care provider if they have symptoms after returning.

“In all likelihood, there will be more people arriving here from the Middle East infected with the MERS-CoV," said Besser. "It is the nature of our connected world that diseases are not contained by borders."

He emphasized that communication and taking a travel history could be key to stopping a viral outbreak.

“Most cases of MERS have occurred among health care workers and close friends and family members before a diagnosis was made in the primary case,” he said. “By sharing travel history, clinics and hospitals can implement appropriate infection control measures to prevent spread of the disease.”

Since the virus was first identified in September 2012, the WHO has been notified of 1,179 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection with MERS virus. Of those confirmed cases, there has been at least 442 related deaths.

Dr. Mark Denison, a professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said research appears to indicate that MERS is likely more similar to SARS, because people appear to be more contagious the more symptoms they have. As a result, patients with MERS can hopefully be identified and quarantined in earlier stages of the disease, when they are less infectious.

"That is a mechanism where, ideally, you can really limit or prevent secondary transmission," he said.

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