The U.S. health officials issued an advisory today as the deadly MERS virus outbreak continues in South Korea.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the advisory to health care providers in an effort to guard against a similar MERS outbreak in the U.S.
The advisory instructs doctors and other health care workers to collect a travel history of patients and consider the possibility of a MERS infection for certain patients.
Those who should be considered for MERS include patients who have a fever and pneumonia or other respiratory distress and had traveled to the Arabian Peninsula within the last 14 days or had close contact with a sick traveler who had recently returned from that region. Additionally, patients should be tested for MERS if they have symptoms and recently visited a health care facility in South Korea, according to the advisory.
In South Korea, the outbreak started when a 68-year-old man returned from a trip to the Arabian Peninsula with the MERS virus and visited four hospitals before he was diagnosed, according to local health officials.
The CDC advised doctors and health care workers to report possible cases to the CDC and the local state health department to curb any potential outbreak in the U.S.
In South Korea, the MERS outbreak has led officials to try a variety of measures in an effort to stop the spread of the disease.
There have been a reported 122 people infected with the virus in the country and 10 people have died from the illness, according to South Korea's Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization. Officials are trying to contain the outbreak by tracking contacts of those who have been confirmed as infected.
The country has now had the largest number of MERS case reported outside of Saudi Arabia, where the virus was first identified in 2012.
Among the measures being taken by health officials is the quarantining of 3,800 people, according to the Associated Press. In a controversial decision, the South Korean government announced it would track the locations of possible MERS contacts by looking at the location of their cell phones.
The incubation period for MERS is approximately between two to 14 days.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye cancelled a trip this week to the U.S. in order to continue to focus on responding to the outbreak.
Additionally, the government announced that it is stepping up monitoring of people placed in quarantine. If a quarantined person doesn't respond to two calls from authorities, that person can now expect a visit from the health ministry to ensure they are staying in compliance.
Healthcare workers have made up a large number of those infected and Korean authorities are trying to protect medical staff and other patients by treating the infected in negative pressure rooms. At least 44 percent of all emergency rooms in the country are now designated to deal with suspected MERS patients, officials said.
One possible reason that infections have spread among health care workers is that one or more patients can be "super spreaders."
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said that super spreaders are used to describe patients who are causing high numbers of infections.
One of the more "common reasons are that the person is exhaling a very large amount of virus," he said, or a sick person is still "energetic."
"They may get around more ... give more hugs," Schaffner said of a super spreader. "If they don’t feel quite well they may keep it to themselves."
The government has also created separate spaces at some emergency rooms to deal specifically with suspected MERS patients.
“This separation will reduce anxiety among ER users and protect both non-MERS patients and medical staff from contracting the virus,” health ministry officials said in a statement.
In addition to putting those possibly exposed in quarantine, the government has also closed at least 2,800 schools. But some in the local and international health community have questioned the decision, saying that there was not a medical reason to shut down schools.
Schaffner said it has been difficult to stop the outbreak because patient zero visited four hospitals before being diagnosed.
“The horse is out of the barn,” Schaffner said of the outbreak.
A common practice in Korean hospitals is to have family remembers help patients in their hospital rooms, so that practice also likely helped increase the spread of the illness, Schaffner said.
“The family becomes health care workers so there’s been spread now to family,” he said. “You can have a chain of transmission."
In the U.S., hospitals should immediately be checking a patient's travel history to see if a person with a cough recently returned from South Korea or the Arabian Peninsula, Schaffner said, noting that if they have recently returned from those affected areas, they can immediately be put into quarantine until they are found to be negative.