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On the trail of a new virus

Map of MERS infection finds microbe spread through hospital dialysis units

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A new, deadly respiratory virus spreads easily in hospital settings, a team of investigators has found.

The virus, called the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS, reminds Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Trish Perl of SARS. “The cases are eerily similar,” she says. Perl and two colleagues investigated a SARS outbreak in Toronto 10 years ago. This spring, they helped unravel the chain of infection of a MERS outbreak  in Saudi Arabia.

By examining medical records and carefully tracking where patients and hospital personnel had been, Perl’s team discovered that dialysis clinics played an important role in the outbreak. One man, designated Patient C, infected seven others, six of whom had undergone dialysis at the same time he did, the team reports June 19 in the New England Journal of Medicine. Patient C caught MERS from patient A, who was staying in the hospital room next door. Patient A ended up transmitting the virus to three people in total.

Once a person has been infected, it takes an average of 5.2 days for symptoms to appear and 7.6 days for MERS to spread to the next victim, the researchers calculate. MERS seems to spread earlier in the infection than SARS did. It is also more deadly.

SARS infected 8,098 people and killed 9.5 percent of them, or 774 people, between November 2002 and July 2003. To date, MERS has infected 64 people worldwide, killing 38, or about 59 percent. In the Saudi outbreak, 65 percent of the 23 people confirmed to have caught the virus died; most were elderly and had other health problems.

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