Health officials on Saturday will begin contacting passengers of an April 24 flight from London to O’Hare Airport after an Indiana man on the plane fell ill with a mysterious Middle East virus, the first case in the U.S.
The man, a health care worker who began his travels in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is hospitalized at Community Hospital in Munster, Ind., with Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is investigating the case along with Indiana health officials.
The Illinois Department of Public Health and the Chicago Department of Public Health jointly released a statement saying the man landed at O’Hare on April 24, then took a bus to Indiana.
Indiana Department of Health officials said the man began to experience increasing respiratory symptoms, including shortness of breath, coughing, and fever three days later. He went to the emergency room at Community Hospital on April 28 evening and was admitted that same day.
The man is now listed in stable condition and is in isolation, Indiana officials said. The patient was “not out in the local community” so there was only “minimal” exposure to the public, the hospital said in a statement released Friday.
The patient’s activities in the U.S. were “very limited” and officials do not expect widespread cases, the release said. Nevertheless, family members and health care workers exposed to the patient will be monitored for the 14-day incubation period, the release said.
“We are maintaining appropriate isolation protocols for the protection of health care staff,” according to the hospital’s statement. “Community Hospital recognized the possibility of the MERS infection and acted quickly to institute isolation protocols to contain the possible spread of the virus. Community Hospital has been working cooperatively with the CDC and ISDH regarding tracking of patient family members and monitoring of exposed health care workers.”
Illinois health officials said the patient was contagious but not coughing during his travels on the planes and bus. Still, health officials “do not consider passengers on the flight or bus to be close contacts of the patient and therefore are not at high risk,” Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck said in a statement Friday.
But, as a “precautionary measure,” CDC officials will contact plane and bus passengers beginning Saturday. If the CDC identifies ill individuals possibly infected with the virus, local public health officials will be notified, according to the news release.
“There is no reason to suspect any current risk to travelers or employees at O’Hare Airport at this time,” said CDPH Commissioner Bechara Choucair. “We will continue to work closely with the CDC and IDPH to protect the public’s health.”
IDPH has activated the Illinois Poison Center to operate the MERS-CoV hotline. Residents and medical professionals who have concerns or questions should call 1-844-565-0256.
Indiana officials said they have already contacted all “high-risk individuals” who came into contact with the patient. “In an abundance of caution,” people who visited the Community Hospital emergency room between 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. April 28 “should watch for signs and symptoms,” they said.
Saudi Arabia has been the center of an outbreak of MERS that began about two years ago. At least 400 people have had the respiratory illness, and more than 100 people have died. All had ties to the Middle East or to people who traveled there. Infections have been previously reported among health care workers.
MERS belongs to the coronavirus family that includes the common cold and SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which caused some 800 deaths globally in 2003.
The MERS virus has been found in camels, but officials don’t know how it is spreading to humans. It can spread from person to person, but officials believe that happens only after close contact. Not all those exposed to the virus become ill.
But it appears to be unusually lethal — by some estimates, it has killed nearly a third of the people it sickened. That’s a far higher percentage than seasonal flu or other routine infections. But it is not as contagious as flu, measles or other diseases. There is no vaccine or cure for MERS.
Symptoms include fever, cough, breathing problems, which can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure.
CDC officials say they are sending a team to investigate the man’s illness, his travel history and to track down people he may have been in close contact with.
Saudi Arabia health officials have recently reported a surge in MERS illnesses; cases have tended to increase in the spring. Experts think the uptick may partly be due to more and better surveillance. Researchers at Columbia University have an additional theory — there may be more virus circulating in the spring, when camels are born.
U.S. health officials have been bracing for the arrival of one or more cases, likely among travelers. Isolated cases of MERS have been carried outside the Middle East. Previously, 163 suspected cases were tested in the U.S. but none confirmed.
Contributing: Associated Press, Becky Schlikerman