HARRISBURG -- Three cases of the potentially lethal MERS virus have now been reported in the country, but Pennsylvania physicians and health officials say the disease poses a low risk to state residents.
The state hasn't seen a single case of Middle East respiratory syndrome -- so called because the disease was identified in Saudi Arabia.
"As of now, you are more likely to come into contact with someone who has common cold, who has the flu, than you are to come into contact with someone who has Middle East respiratory syndrome," said Gus Geraci, chief medical officer for the Pennsylvania Medical Society.
A majority of patients who contract the virus that spreads MERS have developed symptoms, which include fever, shortness of breath and coughing, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though no deaths from U.S. cases have been reported, the disease is fatal in 30 percent of cases worldwide.
All MERS cases to date have been linked to the Arabian Peninsula and nearby countries, a pattern that may help health care workers determine whether a patient suffers from the illness or another respiratory disease.
Carrie DeLone, Pennsylvania's physician general, stressed that infections reported in the United States have occurred among those who have recently been in the Arabian Peninsula or been in close contact with someone who has.
Public health officials have so far identified three cases of MERS or the virus that carries it in the United States.
The first U.S. case was found in a health care worker who lives in Saudi Arabia and traveled to Indiana late last month before he was hospitalized. This patient later recovered and was discharged earlier this month.
Also tests show that an Illinois man, who'd had two short business meetings with the infected Indiana patient, had contracted the MERS virus. Antibodies for the virus were detected in his blood samples, though this person has not shown symptoms of the illness.
A health care worker who traveled from Saudi Arabia to Florida has also been identified as suffering from the illness, the CDC announced earlier this month. This patient is reportedly isolated and in stable condition.
Since MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, there have been 538 reported cases of the disease, according to the CDC.
While this number may seem small, the disease's relatively high rate of mortality and lack of a vaccine or treatment has prompted concern in the global community.
The World Health Organization called the spread of the disease a "global concern" in a statement earlier this month after Saudi health officials asked for the group's help. The statement from the WHO noted that health care workers like the two who showed symptoms after traveling from Saudi Arabia, seem particularly at risk for exposure.
Though it is unclear how exactly the virus spreads from person to person, the disease seems to require close physical contact.
While this means risk to health care workers who deal with the infected patients is high, most Pennsylvania residents shouldn't worry, officials said. "The good news is that the virus doesn't spread easily from person to person," Dr. DeLone said.
Dr. Geraci said Pennsylvania residents should be more concerned about measles -- a disease preventable through immunization -- which officials have reported in two Allegheny County patients in recent months.
He nevertheless urged patients to notify their doctors if they do show symptoms that fit with MERS and have traveled on the Arabian Peninsula or come into close contact with someone who has.
Gideon Bradshaw is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents' Association.