A new virus that may be more deadly than SARS has caused an outbreak of illness in the Middle East, specialists say. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, begins with a fever and mild cough and eventually progresses to pneumonia.
In April, the virus had an especially high fatality rate of 65 percent — 15 people out of 23 confirmed cases in Saudi Arabia died, according to a member of the team keeping watch over four Saudi hospitals as the virus spread. The 65 percent rate held steady by June 19, when 49 people had gotten the disease and 32 died.
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According to the New England Journal of Medicine, MERS is spread by person-to-person contact and is easily transmitted in hospital settings
The worldwide death rate for the virus, known as MERS-CoV, is 59 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most cases have been reported in Saudi Arabia, with small clusters in Britain, France, Italy and Tunisia. No cases have been reported in the U.S.
The virus first emerged in April 2012
, The Washington Post reported. Thirty-eight people have died from MERS; 64 people have been infected.
SARS, the severe acute respiratory syndrome that killed nearly 800 people globally in 2003, is in the same family of viruses are MERS.
Both viruses have a distinctive appearance when viewed under a microscope, and they typically target the respiratory tract.
"To me, this felt like SARS did
," said Dr. Trish Perl according to an Associated Press report. Perl is a senior hospital epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine and is a member of the team.
While MERS and SARS are similar, the new virus is cause for concern. SARS' death rate was only 8 percent.
Dr. Clemens Wendtner, who treated a patient in Munich with a fatal case, said doctors need more to go on. "We need more information from other countries to find out what the best treatment is. Our patient got everything possible and it still didn't help him," he told The Associated Press.
Despite the relatively small number of current cases, experts say it can't yet be written off.
"As long as it is around, it has every opportunity at the genetic roulette table to turn into something more dangerous," Michael Osterholm, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Minnesota, told the AP.
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