The Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus is seen in an undated transmission electron micrograph from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Two U.S. hospital workers who fell ill after contact with a patient suffering from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) have tested negative for the virus, a Florida health official said May 14, 2014. REUTERS/National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases/Handout via Reuters
The Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus is seen in a transmission electron micrograph from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
Reuters

The mysterious virus with origins in the Middle East has now spread to 18 countries around the world, including the United States. Here’s what you need to know about MERS.

MERS starts off with the same symptoms as the common cold.

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a viral respiratory illness caused by a type of coronavirus, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. The virus has similar traits to the SARS virus or the common cold. Those infected with MERS start off with symptoms like a cough, fever, and shortness of breath. More than 500 cases have been reported worldwide, and about 30 percent of those infected have died, Reuters reports.

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The virus has reached the US

The CDC has confirmed two people in the US were infected with the virus, both of whom were healthcare workers traveling from Saudi Arabia. The first case was identified on May 2 in Indiana, and has since been treated and released from the hospital. The second case was confirmed in Florida on May 11. The Florida traveler made a stop at Boston’s Logan Airport before before arriving in Orlando, Fla. However, the Massachusetts Public Health Department says there’s very low concern that the virus has spread to the state but have notified flight passengers as a precaution.

MERS is highly contagious and spreading fast

MERS spreads when a person comes in close contact with someone who has the virus, according to the CDC. However, it’s hard to tell who is the most susceptible to the virus. Cases have been confirmed in 18 countries around the world, including the US. Twenty healthcare workers in Orlando, Fla. may have been exposed to the virus while treating the hospitalized MERS patient. So far, two of the healthcare workers who fell ill have tested negative for the virus.

Infectious disease experts don’t know where the virus came from

Infectious disease experts at the CDC don’t know exactly where the virus came from, but they think it likely originated from an animal. The virus has been found in camels and bats in the Middle East, but experts aren’t sure exactly what role they place its transmission.

Health and safety organizations are concerned

The CDC says it “recognizes the potential for MERS-CoV to spread further and cause more cases globally and in the US.” The agency says it’s monitoring the situation globally and is working with health departments and hospitals nationwide to prepare for any new cases.

The World Health Organization says its concern over MERS has significantly increased, but the disease has not yet met the criteria to be considered a global health emergency. The TSA will post advisories at 22 major international airports across the US to warn travelers about the virus’ spread. However, the CDC does not recommend that travelers change their plans because the overall risk for infection is low.