Monday, June 15, 2015

Americans are unlikely to contract MERS, health experts say By Soumya Karlamangla and Victoria Kim

Just as peak summer season was gearing up, Koreatown travel agent Chris Chang began receiving dozens of calls from travelers concerned about an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in South Korea. MERS, a severe, flu-like illness, was diagnosed in a patient in Seoul last month and has since spread to 138 people and killed 14. Chang, manager at Hana Tour USA, said the company is still operating its South Korea tours on schedule, but he gives nervous customers the option to cancel. He estimated that 20% to 30% had canceled flights and tours because they feared contracting MERS. "It's their choice. It has to do with safety, so we're not going to tell them they are or aren't going to get the disease," Chang said. Despite the anxiety about MERS, health experts say, Americans are unlikely to contract the illness, even if they're traveling to South Korea. All infections so far have been associated with healthcare facilities visited by the original infected patient and haven't spread to the outside community. Plus, numbers of new cases appear to be peaking. MERS, a virus thought to have come to humans from camels, was first detected in a patient in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Characterized by fever, respiratory problems and kidney disease, it is most likely spread through close contact with infected patients, such as coughing. Since MERS was detected there have been two cases in the United States, one in Florida and one in Indiana. Both patients were infected in May 2014 and had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia and recovered after being hospitalized. Dr. Robert Quigley, regional medical director and senior vice president of medical assistance at International SOS, said MERS tends to cause panic because of its similarity to severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed more than 700 people in the early 2000s. "That really was a scare for many, many countries in Asia and even Canada," Quigley said. He said that though both SARS and MERS are coronaviruses, MERS does not appear to spread as easily as SARS and isn't likely to spread much more than it has already in South Korea. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend that Americans change their travel plans because of the outbreak. LA Times AP Photo Lee Jinman