MERS confirmed in Saudi health care worker visiting Orlando

By John W. Davis, Caroline Rowland and Natalie Tolomeo, Team Coverage
Last Updated: Tuesday, May 13, 2014, 2:12 PM EDT
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Health officials have confirmed a case of a mysterious virus that has sickened hundreds in the Middle East in a health care worker from Saudi Arabia who flew into Orlando.

Officials the Florida Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the case of MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, is the second confirmed in the United States, and the first in Florida.

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MERS is a respiratory illness that begins with flu-like fever and cough but can lead to shortness of breath, pneumonia and death. One-third of those who develop symptoms die from it.

Health officials said the 44-year-old health care worker was visiting family in Orlando. They said the man became sick while flying to the U.S. The trip included stops in London, Boston and Atlanta before arriving in Orlando May 1.

He was in Orlando almost a week before going to Dr. P. Phillips Hospital to be treated. While he was in Central Florida, they said he did not leave his family's house and did not visit any theme parks or attractions.

The patient is a health care worker from Saudi Arabia who may have been exposed to the virus at the hospital where he worked in his home country.

"He did not have any cough before coming to the hospital (and) the symptoms were always muscle aches and chills," said Dr. Antonio Crespo, who treated the man at the hospital. 

Crespo said the patient was never in critical condition and has been in isolation since his diagnosis. 

The hospital said 16 workers at the hospital and the man's family are being tested for MERS and monitored by the health department. They are quarantined in their homes and said no one has shown any symptoms so far.

"They will be asked to stay home and to limit the activities and notify us of any symptoms of fever, cold, chills, cough, which are the symptoms of this virus," Crespo said.

Health officials said they do not believe the general public is at great risk. They have notified everyone who was on a plane with this man and are being told by the CDC what to do in this case.

Most MERS cases have been in Saudi Arabia or the Middle East. But earlier in May, the first U.S. case was diagnosed in an American man who traveled from Saudi Arabia to Indiana. That man was a health care worker at a hospital in Saudi Arabia's capital city who flew to the United States on April 24.

After landing in Chicago, the man took a bus to Munster, Indiana, where he became sick and went to a hospital on April 28. He then improved and was released from the hospital late last week. Tests of people who were around the man have all proved negative, health officials have said.

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 one-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 and there's no specific treatment except to relieve symptoms.

The Florida Department of Health is expecting more cases. And, since the virus is killing three out of 10 patients in the Middle East, doctors in Central Florida are on high alert.

Overall, 147 people have died and 491 people have contracted the respiratory illness. So far, all had ties to the Middle East region or to people who traveled there.