Airports asked to post MERS advisory, but Pittsburgh not targeted by CDC
A mysterious respiratory virus from the Middle East that turned up in the United States does not constitute a global health emergency, the World Health Organization concluded on Wednesday, even as some U.S. airports circulated a federal health warning about the ailment.
Pittsburgh International Airport is not among the 22 airports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked to post an advisory about Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, according to the Transportation Safety Administration.
The CDC did not respond to a Tribune-Review inquiry about the one-page document, which encourages travelers to the Arabian Peninsula to wash their hands often, avoid touching their faces and prevent close contact with sick people.
Airports in Detroit, New York and Philadelphia are displaying the warning, which identifies MERS symptoms that include a fever, cough and shortness of breath.
“When you’re picking and choosing which airports you’re going to put those (advisories) in, you should target those that have the most traffic from those areas” in the Middle East, said Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, an infectious disease physician at UPMC.
Still, he said Pittsburgh and other lower-risk cities could encounter MERS, blamed for sickening more than 500 people and killing 145 since 2012, mostly in the Middle East. Most cases have been in Saudi Arabia, although the virus has appeared in Asia, North Africa and Europe.
Health officials in Florida this week confirmed a second U.S. case of MERS. The patient in the first U.S. case, a man in Indiana, was discharged from a hospital last week.
The second U.S. patient is a resident of Saudi Arabia who was visiting Florida and hospitalized in an Orlando hospital. He flew through airports in London, Boston and Atlanta.
Orlando ranks as the most popular flight destination among Pittsburgh air travelers, according to Allegheny County Airport Authority data. Boston ranks second, and Atlanta is fourth.
All but one of the airports asked to post MERS warning signs are among Pittsburgh’s top 50 flight destinations, with a combined 5,000 daily travelers during the first quarter of 2013, the data show.
Washington’s Dulles International Airport, on the warning list, isn’t among Pittsburgh’s top 50 destinations. United Airlines makes four daily flights to Dulles, but more than 80 percent of passengers go there to catch connecting flights elsewhere.
Neither the CDC nor the TSA has contacted Pittsburgh International about MERS, airport spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny said. At the World Health Organization, an assistant director-general, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, said there isn’t proof of the virus’ sustained transmission among people.
“We are so connected by airplane travel that we have to be aware of what’s happening, particularly when new viruses appear, because we don’t know what direction they’re going to take,” said Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department. “But in the relative scheme of what’s going to happen to an individual, this isn’t at the top of my list.”