The Man With MERS


Filed Under Healthcare, Latest News on May 8 

The first case of MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, has arrived in the U.S.;more specifically, a clinic in the Chicago Area where a health care worker has been hospitalized after a trip to Saudi Arabia. Officials won’t release too many details about the man, but an invited expert on FOX described him as a doctor who had travelled to the peninsula with the express purpose of treating MERS patients. Dr. Ian Lipkiin, a Columbia University MERS expert, stated that it was impossible to isolate the virus over in Saudi Arabia “given the interconnectedness of our world.” So far the virus, which may come from camels or bats, has killed over 100 of the 400 or so patients who have become infected. That’s a very high rate of fatalities, around 30%. The good news is that it appears not to be easily transmitted from patient to patient, requiring close contact, although it does seem to be airborne.

Does Dr. Lipkin know the Indiana man who is in isolation in a clinic in that state? The community of doctors who are experts in the disease and/or have treated MERS patients cannot be a very large one; not yet at least. Is the spread of a new virus always inevitable as Dr. Lipkin suggests? Or is something else at play? Do experts in a pathology have a right to go to the source of a new disease to study it asap despite the fact that they may become transmitters themselves? How does society, or more precisely any given nation, respond to such new viruses? On the one hand, we want to gather as much information as possible on the disease, and who better than a health care professional, usually a doctor, to undertake such a tricky task? The data they may gather and relay to places like the CDC can and usually does save lives, sometimes many lives. But do we have to passively assume that any new disease that emerges anywhere on the planet will end up in the U.S. and there is little one can do? It seems that on occasion scientific curiosity, both noble and useful, conflicts with public health. In the case of our anonymous health care worker, it may have been wise to have required him to undergo a period of isolation before allowing him back in order to ensure that he hadn’t picked up the virus. Better to have such a requirement in the early stages before it becomes logistically impossible and a constraint on people’s freedoms.