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MERS spreading in Middle East, Europe: Should Americans worry?

MERS has infected 70 people overseas since last September, health officials reported Sunday. The infectious disease known as a coronavirus has killed more than half of its victims.

The latest toll includes two more laboratory-confirmed cases in Saudi Arabia -- the country hit hardest by the outbreak so far -- and a death of a previously reported case from the Eastern Region of the country who had been hospitalized since the end of April, according to the World Health Organization. The means 39 people have died of MERS since Sept. 2012.

Middle East SARS-like virus kills 33 people 00:17

To date, the cases of MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) have been linked directly or indirectly to four countries: Jordan Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Other cases have been found in France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and the U.K., but those patients have either been transferred for care from the Middle East or visited the region and got sick later. There has also been evidence of the disease spreading in close contact at health care facilities.

A coronavirus is a respiratory infection in the same family of the common cold and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which killed about 800 people during a 2003 pandemic.

Last week, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found the new MERS virus was deadlier than SARS, finding about an 8 percent death rate among SARS patients, compared to a 65 percent fatality rate among those infected with MERS.

The disease has prompted Saudi health officials to urge safety precautions during the Umrah pilgrimage during the month of Ramadan this July, urging the elderly, terminally ill, pregnant women and children to postpone their plans.

No special screening or travel and trade restrictions have been implemented by the World Health Organization this time, but WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan has previously called MERS the single biggest public health threat, and had said officials were "empty-handed" regarding prevention measures.

"Right now our assessment of risk in the United States is still low," Dr. Mark Pallansch, director of the Division of Viral Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said to "We do not believe there is reason for undue concern."

Pallansch pointed out while the cases among Europeans who visited the Middle East suggest that importation of MERS can occur, he says there's more volume of travel between the two regions than the United States and Middle East.

"The risk is proportionally less in the United States, but we are not assuming the risk is zero," he said.

American health officials in fact have been monitoring MERS since it was first reported, when the respiratory infection was known only as a "novel coronavirus." The agency is preparing for the possibility of MERS reaching the U.S., by telling doctors to ask patientswith unexplained respiratory illnesses whether or not they'd traveled to affected regions, and to notify the CDC of any cases. Testing kits have also been distributed to health departments in more than 40 states, Pallansch added.

To date, the CDC has tested some suspicious cases, but there are still no confirmed cases of MERS in the United States.

CDC officials have also been following the latest research on MERS as it comes out, and said the organization is prepared to aid the international community if the epidemiological situation changes.

At this time, they is not directly monitoring travelers, but alerts are beginning to roll out to some U.S. airports, notifying travelers that if they've become ill within two weeks of traveling in the Middle East, to make sure they tell their doctors.

When traveling, people can reduce their risk for infection by washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds (hum the "Happy Birthday" song twice), cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, avoiding contact with the eyes, nose and mouth if your hands are unwashed, and avoid close contact like sharing foods or kissing with sick people.

"More likely you'd come down with another respiratory virus," when traveling, Pallansch pointed out.

The CDC has more information on the U.S. monitoring the MERS situation.

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