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MERS Coronavirus: Worry Grows over ‘Superspreaders’

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- The MERS coronavirus has yet to surface in the United States, but experts say it’s “only a plane ride away.”

“It would be easy for this to be imported to this country,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  “CDC works 24/7 to track infections around the world because we are all connected by the air we breathe.”

Frieden said he’s particularly worried about “superspreaders” -- people who can pass viruses more readily than others.  The 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak was driven by a small group of superspreaders, including the initial case in Hong Kong, and a couple who travelled to Toronto.

SARS sickened more than 8,000 people, killing 774 of them.  The virus vanished in 2004, probably because non-superspreaders proved very ineffective at spreading the disease.

So far, at least 50 people have contracted MERS -- the Middle East respiratory syndrome -- and at least 30 of them have died.  And while the virus seems to be spreading more slowly than SARS, there’s still the potential for superspreaders to ramp up the numbers.

“It’s only in the past month or two that it’s begun to look a lot more like SARS, and that’s why we’re more concerned now,” said Frieden, adding that Americans who have traveled to the Middle East should tell their doctors if they develop flu-like symptoms so they can be isolated and treated.

“Our job is to worry about things that might harm Americans so that Americans don’t have to worry themselves,” he said.  “What we’re doing is working 24/7 to track it, to figure out where it is, how it’s spreading and how to make sure that we can stop it.”

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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