Despite a rapid increase in cases of a deadly viral infection that emerged in the Middle East two years ago, the World Health Organization said the MERS outbreak is not yet a global health emergency.
In a news conference Wednesday in Geneva, the agency said a special emergency committee of health and infectious disease experts agreed that the situation has become increasingly serious and urgent. But because "there is not convincing evidence" that the disease has become more transmissible from person to person, the experts said, it does not yet meet the criteria for being declared a public health emergency of international concern, according to WHO spokesman Keiji Fukuda.
The emergency committee found that much of the recent surge in cases was from large outbreaks of MERS in hospitals in Saudi Arabia, where some emergency rooms are overcrowded and infection control and prevention were "sub-optimal." The WHO group called for all hospitals to immediately strengthen infection prevention and control measures. Basic measures, such as washing hands and proper use of gloves and masks, would have an immediate impact on reducing the number of cases, he said.
The virus, which causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, infections in people, has been confirmed in 571 cases reported to the WHO, including 171 deaths. There are two confirmed cases in the United States. One patient in Indiana has recovered. The second patient is hospitalized in Orlando. Two hospital employees who were exposed to the Florida patient have developed flulike symptoms, and one has been hospitalized.
Hospital officials said Wednesday that the two employees have tested negative for the virus. They are awaiting test results on 18 other health care workers. Meanwhile, the patient with MERS remains in isolation but no longer has a fever.
MERS, which was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012, can cause severe acute respiratory illness with fever, cough and shortness of breath. More than 30 percent of known patients who have symptoms of MERS have died. The virus is from the same family of viruses as SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed almost 800 people worldwide after it first appeared in China in 2002.
Experts have been concerned about the spread of infection in Saudi Arabia, where most of the cases have occurred. During Ramadan in July and the hajj in October, millions of people will make pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia from around the world.