Health workers in Florida who were in close contact with a patient suffering from a virus that has killed hundreds in the Middle East have come down with flu-like symptoms, prompting fears that the disease may spread.
Officials at the Dr. P. Phillips Hospital in Orlando said Tuesday that two health care workers were exposed to the sickened man — the second confirmed U.S> case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) — in the emergency department before it became clear that he might be infected with the virus, which is often deadly.
One of the hospital employees has been hospitalized, while the other is currently being isolated in his home and watched for signs of infection.
MERS, which causes coughing, fever and sometimes-fatal pneumonia, is a virus from the same family as SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed around 800 people worldwide after it first appeared in China in 2002.
Hospital and local health officials said at a press conference that the MERS patient in Orlando, Florida, also a healthcare worker, had made a visit last week to the Orlando Regional Medical Center to accompany another person who was having a medical procedure. The MERS patient was symptomatic at the time, but did not seek treatment.
Five health care workers from the regional medical center and another 15 from the Dr. P. Phillips Hospital are being tested for MERS, including the two patients who have developed symptoms.
Hospital officials said they are awaiting test results to determine whether any of the exposed health care workers have MERS.
Health officials stress that MERS is not a risk to the general public, but it does spread among health care workers who have close contact with infected patients.
Hospital officials said the MERS patient, who works in a hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is doing well and currently has a low-grade fever and a slight cough. The first confirmed patient is also a health care provider who recently traveled to Saudi Arabia and is being treated in a stable and isolated condition.
There is no vaccine for MERS, and around a third of known cases have been fatal, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The White House said Tuesday that President Barack Obama had been briefed on the latest U.S. MERS case.
In an effort to address the situation, the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday discussed whether a deadly virus that emerged in the Middle East in 2012 now constitutes a "public health emergency of international concern."
So far, WHO said about 400 people in 12 countries have been confirmed to have MERS. It reported that 93 patients have died, but the Saudi health agency said deaths within Saudi Arabia have already topped 100.
Al Jazeera and wire services