Since the beginning of May, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has been making national headlines. This potentially fatal virus linked to the Arabian Peninsula, which has a mortality rate of about 30 percent, recently appeared in Indiana and Florida — the first reported cases in the U.S. While it was first reported that MERS had spread from the man in Indiana to a business colleague in Illinois, additional testing has led to a revised diagnosis of the Illinois man, which the CDC announced on May 28.
The Pennsylvania Medical Society (PAMED) hosted a media call-in on May 19 to raise awareness of the disease among Pennsylvania media, providers, and the public. Listen to the recording.
Participating in the call-in were Carrie DeLone, MD, Pennsylvania’s Physician General; Gus Geraci, MD, PAMED chief medical officer; John Goldman, MD, an infectious disease expert at PinnacleHealth in Harrisburg; and Lora Regan, MD, an occupational medicine specialist in Lancaster.
Pennsylvania’s advanced preparedness efforts
Though the risk of MERS to the general population is low, Dr. DeLone says that the health care community needs to be vigilant. She reminded listeners that Pennsylvania labs have the capability to test for the MERS virus, and that the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) must be alerted of any person that fits the “case definition” of MERS before the specimen is sent to the lab for testing by calling 1-877-PA HEALTH.
She reviewed the “case definition” of MERS: Fever, pneumonia, or acute respiratory distress, and a personal history of travel from the Arabian Peninsula or neighboring countries within 14 days of emerging symptoms, or close contact with a symptomatic traveler from the same area.
She also reiterated that health care providers should only request testing for those with suspected cases of MERS, and that clinicians, not lab techs, should be the ones alerting DOH. If DOH feels it is a possible case of MERS, a tracking number will be issued to the specimen before it is sent to the state lab to help the front line disease investigation team more rapidly identify those who had close contact with the individual should the test be positive.
“The Department of Health, in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Word Health Organization (WHO) will continue to monitor this illness and take every precaution to safeguard the health and well-being of all Pennsylvanians,” said Dr. DeLone.
What PAMED is Doing
Dr. Geraci told listeners that PAMED gets provider alerts from both the CDC and DOH and publishes these announcements in our Daily Dose email to keep members informed.
Read the CDC alert on MERS
Read the DOH alert on MERS
Health care providers can sign up to receive these types of alerts through DOH’s PA Health Network (PA-HAN)
Dr. Geraci also told listeners that while there are currently no known cases of MERS in PA, there are outbreaks of other infectious diseases being seen in Pennsylvania that physicians and the public should be aware of, in particular measles. There have been two recent cases of measles confirmed in Allegheny and Monroe Counties.
There is a vaccine to prevent measles, a disease which accounts for about 799 deaths per 100,000 people.
“We need to be aware of the importance of immunizations for a disease that’s current affecting Pennsylvanians and has a vaccine,” said Dr. Geraci.
What can the public do to protect themselves?
According to Dr. Goldman, the best thing the average person can do is to simply be aware that MERS is a possibility, practice good hand-washing technique, and try to avoid people who are sick, as you would in the case of any other respiratory illness. He also noted that it’s much more likely that you will come into contact with someone who has the common cold or flu than that you will catch MERS.
How can health care workers protect themselves?
Dr. Regan, representing the Pennsylvania Occupational Environmental Medical Society, said that most health care facilities already have systems and processes in place to protect workers against infections such as MERS, including the airborne isolation rooms in most large facilities. She noted, however, that smaller facilities should ask any suspected MERS patients to wear a mask, immediately put them in a private room, and minimize the number of health care workers who enter the suspected patient’s room.