U.S. hospitals warned to be on lookout for MERS cases

Approximately 30 percent of people who contract MERS die

Women wear masks as a precaution against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) as they walk on the Myeongdong, one of the main shopping districts, in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, June 12, 2015. Authorities in South Korea temporarily closed two hospitals amid persistent fears over the MERS virus outbreak, which killed an 11th person Friday, though health officials said they are seeing fewer new infections. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

(MEDIA GENERAL) – Doctors and hospitals across the U.S. have been warned to be on the lookout for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a potentially deadly illness spread through cough or close contact with an infected patient.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an alert Thursday, June 11, 2015, amid an outbreak of MERS in South Korea. More than 120 people have contracted MERS in the past few weeks, and 11 have died.

South Korean health officials believe the MERS outbreak stems from a 68-year-old man who returned home to South Korea after visiting Saudi Arabia. The man allegedly visited four hospitals before being diagnosed, exposing many people in the process.

“Every clinician, doctors and nurses need to be thinking about the possibility of MERS,” Dr. Michael Bell, deputy director of the CDC, told CBS News. “That means if someone comes into a clinic or an emergency room with a fever and a cough, you need to ask, ‘Have you travelled at all? Where have you been?’”

As of now, no travel ban has been put in place to restrict people from visiting South Korea or the Middle East.

What is MERS?

MERS is caused by a coronavirus, the same family of viruses that causes the common cold. It first was reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia and has spread to other countries, including cities in Africa, Europe, Asia and the U.S. Almost all cases of MERS from outside the Middle East have been reported by people who have traveled there.

The primary symptoms of MERS are similar to other respiratory illnesses: fever, cough, shortness of breath and chest pains. However, MERS can induce other issues within your body, including damaging some organs.

According to the Mayo Clinic, approximately 30 percent of people who contract MERS die, although that number likely is inflated due to patients who don’t seek proper treatment right away, thinking it’s just another common illness. People most at risk for serious illness are older adults that have a weakened immune system or a chronic disease.

Much like other respiratory illnesses, the best way to prevent MERS infection is to practice sound hygiene practices.

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