Vermont health experts believe there's a good chance MERS will eventually be confirmed in a patient in this state but they also say Vermont is prepared. The deadly respiratory virus is now confirmed in nine countries across the globe, including the United States.
It could be diagnosed by any medical provider in any region of Vermont, but the state's largest hospital and only academic medical center expects most Middle East Respiratory Syndrome patients would end up at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington. That's one of the reasons infectious disease experts are taking the threat of MERS seriously.
"This is of huge concern. If we look at what happened with SARS that really was a global pandemic. This is a huge concern for me because of the profession I'm in and having to deal with the hospital environment and want to make sure that there would be no transmission in the hospital to other vulnerable patients," said Dr. Kemper Alston of FAHC infectious disease.
Most cases of MERS have been in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the Middle East, but with tens of thousands of people traveling to and from the United States each month. Alston is not surprised the mysterious virus has already been confirmed in three people inside the U.S.
Unlike SARS in 2002 and 2003 when 10 percent of patients died, MERS so far has a 30 percent fatality rate. There is no known treatment or vaccine.
So should Vermonters be concerned?
"As of today, I think it would be good for Vermonters to be aware of this, especially for Vermonters who travel to that part of the world on business or for pleasure. That would be important to know and obviously if they return from those areas with cough, fever, shortness of breath, those would be reasons to go to their physician and make sure they physician is aware they've traveled to that part of the world," said Alston.
The federal Centers for Disease Control is in regular contact with medical providers and public health officials in Vermont updating them on how to recognize MERS, how to test for it, isolation and other infection control measures, lab preparation and more.
"So the Health Department, as I said, is communicating with our health care colleagues around the state and we've developed our own internal protocol for how we would investigate a case, or a suspected case, follow up on the case and contacts of that case. I think there's a very good chance that we could have a case in Vermont mostly because people travel and people come in contact with lots of other people who travel, so we wouldn't be surprised if we had a case here," said Patsy Kelso from the Vermont Health Department.
And that's why Vermont health officials and medical providers throughout the state say they're ready. It's unclear if MERS will become the global pandemic long feared in the medical community but if it does, those on the front lines in Vermont are prepared.
Both Alston and Kelso say isolation protocol would increase for MERS patients, and would most likely include home confinement for those not seriously ill.
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