NEW YORK — Health officials on today confirmed the first case of an American infected with a mysterious Middle East virus. The man fell ill after arriving in the U.S. last week from Saudi Arabia where he was a health care worker.
The man is hospitalized in stable condition in northwest Indiana with Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is investigating the case along with Indiana health officials.
The virus is not highly contagious and this case “represents a very low risk to the broader, general public,” Dr. Anne Schuchat told reporters during a CDC briefing.
The federal agency plans to track down passengers he may have been in close contact with during his travels; it was not clear how many people may have been exposed to the virus.
Officials didn’t provide any details about the man’s job in Saudi Arabia or whether he was treating MERS patients there. Saudi Arabia has been the center of a MERS outbreak that began two years ago, and infections have been reported in health care workers.
Overall, at least 400 people have had the respiratory illness, and more than 100 people have died. All had ties to the Middle East or to people who traveled there.
MERS belongs to the coronavirus family that includes the common cold and SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which caused some 800 deaths globally in 2003.
The MERS virus has been found in camels, but officials don’t know how it is spreading to humans. It can spread from person to person, but officials believe that happens only after close contact. Not all those exposed to the virus become ill.
But it appears to be unusually lethal — by some estimates, it has killed nearly a third of the people it sickened. That’s a far higher percentage than seasonal flu or other routine infections. But it is not as contagious as flu, measles or other diseases. There is no vaccine or cure for MERS.
Federal and state health officials today released only limited information about the U.S. case: On April 24, the man flew from Riyadh — Saudi Arabia’s capital and largest city — to the United States, with a stop in London. He landed in Chicago and took a bus to the neighboring state of Indiana. He didn’t become sick until Sunday, the CDC said.
He went to the emergency room at Community Hospital in Munster the next day with a fever, cough and shortness of breath. He was admitted and tested for the MERS virus because he had traveled from the Middle East.
There’s been a recent surge in MERS illnesses in Saudi Arabia; cases have tended to increase in the spring. Experts think the uptick may party be due to more and better surveillance. Researchers at Columbia University have an additional theory — there may be more virus circulating in the spring, when camels are born.
U.S. health officials have been bracing for the arrival of one or more cases, likely among travelers. Isolated cases of MERS have been carried outside the Middle East. Previously, 163 suspected cases were tested in the U.S. but none confirmed.