California is low-risk for MERS, health official says


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The risk of Middle East respiratory syndrome spreading to California is very low, Karen Smith, the state’s top health officer, said Monday.

MERS, the deadly virus that is circulating overseas, has made headlines over the last month as it spreads through health facilities in South Korea, killing 16 people and infecting 150 in the largest outbreak outside the Middle East. It has not spread outside of South Korea’s hospitals into the wider community.

The California Department of Public Health has tested 63 people for MERS since 2013, but all were negative. Six people have been tested in Orange County since 2012, also all negative, and none related to the South Korea outbreak.

MERS does not spread easily. Most people are infected when they commingle in crowded hospitals or care for a patient in close contact.

Smith advised anyone who comes down with fever and symptoms of a respiratory illness – including a cough or shortness of breath – within two weeks of traveling from the Middle East or visiting a health facility in South Korea to call their health care provider.

It’s important to call ahead and to mention the travel, Smith said, so precautions can be taken.

MERS belongs to the family of coronaviruses that includes the common cold and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and can cause fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure. Symptoms include coughing and wheezing.

Two people in the United States have contracted MERS; both reported last year. They were health care workers exposed in Saudi Arabia, where the disease first emerged.