By Dennis Thompson
FRIDAY, May 2, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- The first case of a deadly respiratory virus that initially surfaced in the Middle East two years ago has been diagnosed in the United States, federal health officials announced Friday.
The unidentified patient, a health care professional who had been working in Saudi Arabia, is being treated at a hospital in Indiana. Saudi Arabia is the epicenter of the viral outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), officials said.
MERS kills about a quarter of the people who contract the virus, Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during an afternoon news conference.
Schuchat called the infected individual "a very low risk to the general public."
In some countries, the virus has spread from person to person through close contact, such as caring for or living with an infected person. But, there's currently no evidence of sustained spread of MERS in general settings, the CDC said.
"The virus has not shown the ability to spread easily in a community setting," Schuchat said.
The patient is in isolation and in stable condition, Schuchat said. The person is receiving oxygen, but is not on a ventilator.
Schuchat would not name the Indiana hospital, provide the patient's age or gender, or say what role the person serves as a health care professional.
CDC and Indiana health officials don't yet know how the patient became infected with the virus, but say it's very likely that it happened in Saudi Arabia.
Officials also don't know how many people had close contact with the patient, but say there is no evidence at this time that the virus has spread to anyone else.
The patient took a plane on April 24 from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to London, then from London to Chicago. The patient next took a bus from Chicago to Indiana. On April 27, the patient started experiencing "respiratory symptoms," and was admitted to the Indiana hospital the next day, the CDC said.
Because of the patient's symptoms -- shortness of breath, coughing and fever -- and travel history, Indiana health officials tested for MERS and confirmed the infection Friday afternoon, the CDC officials said.
CDC officials are working with the airline and the bus company to track down people who may have come in contact with the patient, Schuchat said.
To date, there have been 401 confirmed cases of MERS in 12 countries, but all the cases originated in six countries in the Arabian Peninsula. Ninety-three people have died. Officials don't know where the virus came from or how it spreads. Currently, there is no available vaccine or recommended treatment for the virus, the CDC said.
"In this interconnected world we live in, we expected MERS to make its way to the United States," said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC. "We have been preparing since 2012 for this possibility."
People who come down with respiratory illness within 12 weeks of traveling to Saudi Arabia should notify their doctor, Schuchat said. The same goes for someone who becomes ill after contact with a person who has recently traveled to Saudi Arabia.
However, the CDC has not recommended that anyone change their travel plans based on the MERS virus, she said.
Camels have been identified as carriers of MERS, but it's not known how the virus is being spread to people.
Dr. Debra Spicehandler, an infectious disease expert at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y., said, "MERS is very similar to the SARS cases we saw a few years ago. It is dangerous and is associated with acute respiratory illness. It can be spread from person to person in close contact, and there is no treatment for it at this point."