MERS Virus Spreads To Italy: WHO, CDC Find Cases of SARS-Like Coronavirus in Tuscany

on June 3, 2013 11:36 AM EDT

Coronavirus
Three cases of the MERS virus have been reported in Italy. There have been 27 deaths due to MERS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Photo: NIAID )

The deadly virus MERS has spread to Italy, with three new cases causing fears of a SARS-like outbreak. The World Health Organization has called the deadly coronavirus "a threat to the entire world."

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The so-called novel coronavirus "is not a problem that any single affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself," Margaret Chan said Monday in her closing remarks at the 66th World Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.

On Sunday, the WHO announced that two females in Italy had contracted MERS-CoV, an announcement that came one day after the WHO said that a 45-year-old man had contracted MERS. The man had recently traveled to Jordan, which has seen two deadly cases of MERS.  

The two females to contract the disease both had contact with the 45-year-old man. One is a 2-year-old girl related to the man, and the other is one of the man's colleagues. All three patients are reported to be in good condition.

"At the moment, the situation is under control," Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin said. "The conditions of the people involved are being monitored, and even the baby is getting better."

MERS-CoV -- which stands for Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus -- acts like a cold virus and attacks the respiratory system. But the accompanying fever and cough are much more severe than the common cold, and can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure. MERS, like SARS, is a coronavirus, but according to virologist Nathan Wolfe, MERS and SARS are different enough genetically that they are thought to have emerged independently of one another.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that there are no specific treatments for MERS-CoV, and that medical care helps to relieve symptoms.

So how does MERS spread?

According the CDC, "MERS-CoV has been shown to spread between people who are in close contact. Transmission from infected patients to healthcare personnel has also been observed. Clusters of cases in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UK and France are being investigated."

Of the 50 known worldwide cases of the coronavirus, 27 have been fatal, according to the CDC. Most cases have been found in Saudi Arabia, where there have been 38 cases, of which 21 were fatal.

Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, addressed the outbreak of MERS at the 66th World Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, on May 27.

"We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat," Chan said.

"We do not know where the virus hides in nature. We do not know how people are getting infected. Until we answer these questions, we are empty-handed when it comes to prevention. These are alarm bells. And we must respond."

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