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MERS Virus May Never Become Big Threat in U.S.

New strain will most likely weaken over time, infection specialists explain

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Steven Reinberg

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, June 6 (HealthDay News) -- Anyone who has watched the movie "Contagion" has seen how fast a virus can spread and how deadly it can be, but is it reality?

Much like the film, a new emerging virus called the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), which kills half the people it infects, has spread from the Middle East to Europe. Since September, there have been 54 reported cases and 30 deaths, making some consider it a worldwide threat.

"Looking at the overall global situation, my greatest concern right now is the novel coronavirus," Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, told delegates at a recent meeting. "The novel coronavirus is a threat to the entire world."

Experts, however, aren't sure the virus is as big a threat as Chan believes.

"Anytime there is a new virus that has the potential to kill people, we ought to take it seriously," said Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.

But while Siegel believes the virus's spread should be tracked and studied, he doubts it will ever become a real threat.

"Fear is the biggest virus going," he said. "The amount of concern is already outweighing the risk. People have seen 'Contagion' too many times."

MERS-CoV is one of many viruses that can cause everything from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). This virus, however, is new and it's not SARS.

Comparing this virus to the 2003 SARS outbreak is a mistake, Siegel said. "The SARS outbreak, although it was also a coronavirus, was overly hyped. You ended with 8,000 cases around the world and only about 700 deaths."

Every year, the flu kills more than 30,000 people in the United States alone and 500,000 around the world, he said, to put things in perspective.

When a new virus like MERS-CoV comes along, it is often very deadly, but as it spreads it becomes less so, Siegel explained.

"The fact that it has a 50 percent mortality rate means it's a very serious virus, but as viruses get out in the world more, the mortality rate usually goes down," he explained. "With SARS, it started at 50 percent and ended up at 10 percent."

The reason viruses get less deadly is simply that a virus that kills its host can't survive to infect others. "If the virus kills its host, it's much harder to spread," Siegel said.

The key question is how easily does the virus travel from one person to another. "Right now, it does not look that transmissible. Otherwise, it would have spread already more than it has," he said.

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