MERS virus doesn't spread easily

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Respiratory pathogenic MERS virus from Shutterstock
Respiratory pathogenic MERS virus from Shutterstock
Alex Oakenman

People infected with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus are unlikely to pass it to others in their household, a new study suggests.

Mostly confined to countries in the Middle East so far, the virus has infected 837 people and killed at least 291, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Low transmission at home

"A lot of speculations have been made that MERS spreads significantly among family members and household contacts of active cases," said study lead researcher Dr. Ziad Memish, Saudi Arabia's assistant deputy minister of health for preventive medicine.

Memish's team studied 26 patients with MERS and their 280 household contacts. The researchers found that 12 people among the 280 household contacts came down with MERS.

Read: Jump in MERS cases in Saudi Arabia

According to Memish, that puts the odds of getting MERS from another person at about 5 percent.

"It's reassuring that very low transmission takes place at home among family contacts, and the majority of transmission occurs at health-care facilities," Memish said.

In fact, 25 percent of all MERS cases have been among health-care workers, according to WHO.

The new study's findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

MERS not very contagious


Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Centre in New York City, agreed with the findings, saying, "MERS is not very contagious."

By comparison, the odds of catching the flu from a close contact are 25 percent, Siegel said. "If someone in your household has flu, there's a one in four chance you're going to get it," he said.

With measles, the chances of getting the disease from an infected person in your household are even higher, hitting 90 percent, Siegel said.

"This study shows that the chances of MERS becoming widespread is small," he said.

Read: MERS an international emergency? WHO deciding

Siegel added that this low transmission rate has kept the virus largely confined to the Middle East, and the cases seen outside the region have been among people who travelled or worked in that area.

MERS can start with a fever, cough and shortness of breath. Pneumonia is a common complication. Diarrhoea has also been reported by some patients, the WHO said.

Severe cases of MERS can cause respiratory failure requiring breathing support in an intensive care unit. Some patients suffer kidney failure or septic shock.

The virus causes more severe disease in people with weakened immune systems, older people and those with such chronic diseases as diabetes, cancer and lung disease, the agency said.

Read more:

Source of MERS virus still unclear
Repeated MERS transmission between animals and humans

Image: Respiratory pathogenic MERS virus from Shutterstock

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