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Public health officials maintain eye on MERS, other illnesses amid Ebola alarm

While Maryland health officials urged caregivers this week to be alert for possible Ebola virus cases, they were also quick to emphasize there are other — perhaps more contagious — pathogens that they are also monitoring.

Public health officials around the world remain on watch for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, while the United States is on guard for enterovirus D68 cases among children. As flu season begins, surveillance for that illness is resuming, and other potentially deadly threats such as avian flu lurk, as well.

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Unlike Ebola, those viruses may be airborne, increasing the risk of spreading. But it's Ebola that grabs headlines and grips the public because of its high mortality rate — 50 percent in the current outbreak — and the gruesome toll it takes on the body.

Ebola "came rapidly on the heels of MERS," said Dr. Lisa Maragakis, head epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "Our providers are very familiar with this kind of paradigm where we interview patients and screen them for risk factors."

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More than 300 people have died in 852 cases of MERS, primarily in nine countries on or near the Arabian Peninsula. Travelers from that region have brought the illness to a dozen other countries, including the U.S. Most patients infected with the virus have developed fever, cough and shortness of breath, and 30 percent of them have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

MERS has spread through close contact, but "there is no evidence of sustained spreading in community settings," according to CDC.

The virus' spread has slowed since spiking in April, but Maryland health officials said monitoring for it continues. Austria reported its first MERS case late last month, and the World Health Organization said Thursday that 15 cases and four deaths were reported between mid-August and late September.

State health officials confirmed last month the state's first case of enterovirus D68, a respiratory illness that has infected 538 people in 43 states and the District of Columbia. Most cases are minor, the equivalent of a cold, but in children with asthma and underlying health conditions, serious breathing problems can occur. The virus has been blamed for four deaths.

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At a news conference on Ebola preparedness Thursday, state Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein urged the public to get flu shots as the influenza virus re-emerges for the winter. The state conducts influenza surveillance from October into May.

The CDC estimates between 3,000 and 49,000 people nationwide die of the flu each year; it does not track precise figures of overall flu deaths. But health officials track flu deaths in children — in the 2012-2013 flu season, 171 such deaths occurred, five of them in Maryland, according to the CDC and the state Health Department.

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