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Hospital providing no MERS update

– No new information was released Saturday about the first case of an American infected with a mysterious virus that has sickened hundreds of people in the Middle East.

The man fell ill with Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, after flying to the U.S. late last month from Saudi Arabia, where he was a health care worker. Calls to Community Hospital in Munster, in northwest Indiana, referred the media to the Borshoff public relations firm in Indianapolis, where spokeswoman Andrea Farmer said the hospital does not plan to give daily updates. The man was listed in good condition Friday.

A Purdue University biology professor said Saturday that the illness’s presence in Indiana shows why research about the coronavirus family that causes illnesses from the common cold to MERS to SARS is important.

“We really need to understand the differences in these coronaviruses so we can have … therapeutics or know how to make vaccines, a lot like we do with the flu now,” Andrew Mesecar said.

Mesecar is part of a team at the West Lafayette university that has been working to develop a pill that would help people who have been infected with SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, recover and help protect those who know they have been exposed to it. In 2003, SARS killed hundreds of people, mostly in Asia, in a short-lived outbreak.

Gov. Mike Pence said Friday that the Indiana Department of Health is working to track the MERS case and to assess the risk to the public and to prevent the spread of the virus.

Pence encouraged those who may have been exposed to the virus to report symptoms to their medical provider.

Federal and state health officials said Friday that the man flew from Saudi Arabia to the United States on April 24, with a stop in London. He landed in Chicago and took a bus to Indiana. He didn’t become sick until Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

He went to the emergency room at Community Hospital with a fever, cough and shortness of breath.

J. Eric Dietz, director of Purdue Homeland Security Institute and the former executive director of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, said the smartest thing people worried about MERS can do is take routine precautions, such as washing hands regularly and avoiding others who are sick.

“If you have to provide caregiving for somebody when they’re sick, then step up the hand-washing,” he said. “Wipe down surfaces with anti-bacterial or chlorine wipes to try to make sure the contact hazard isn’t quite so severe.”

Mesecar said he doesn’t think people should be too concerned about MERS if they haven’t been to the Middle East or had contact with someone from the Middle East.

MERS can spread from person to person, but officials believe that happens only after close contact. Mesecar said officials haven’t been able to define what close contact means, saying they know someone sitting in the front of a plane doesn’t have to worry about catching it from someone in the back of the plane.

“It’s hard to define that right now,” he said.