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UI Scientists Working to Understand MERS

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Centers for Disease Control identified the first case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS, in the United States on May 2nd. The virus was found in a person in Indiana who had previously traveled to the Arabian Peninsula, where several more cases have been identified recently.

Dr. Stanley Perlman, professor of microbiology at the University of Iowa, is part of a worldwide effort to understand more about the virus, discovered in 2012.

“There’s some indications that this virus has been in camels for much longer than that,” Perlman explained.

Perlman said about 400 cases of MERS have been identified in the last two years, but the recent jump from 250 cases has caught the attention of scientists across the globe.

“Part of that is because they’re looking harder, so they’re picking up people who are asymptomatic, and the second reason we’re talking is this person came from Saudi Arabia to Indiana via planes and buses,” Perlman said.

Perlman said it appears that camels in that part of the world — many imported from Africa — carry the virus.

“This may primarily occur from sick camels to camel handlers,” Perlman explained, “and it may have occurred for long periods of time, but we’re recognizing it now because somebody finally isolated a virus.”

Whereas MERS causes cold-like symptoms in camels, it can cause pneumonia in humans, killing about 30% of those infected. The CDC has not issued any travel warnings, as infections appear to be happening mostly in health care settings. However, the UIHC travel clinic still advises travelers to take basic precautions.

“The things that are generally recommended are making sure that people are immune to varicella, and that they’re up to date on tetanus vaccination, and then making sure they’re up to date on influenza vaccine,” said clinic director, Dr. Judy Streit.

Perlman is studying the virus’s effect on human receptors in mice, as there are currently no known vaccines or treatments. But it’s a far cry from the SARS virus that spread to more than two dozen countries in the early part of the last decade.

“You don’t have to worry about walking down the street with a mask,” Perlman told us. “That’s unnecessary.”

The CDC says symptoms of MERS include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

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