Health officials on MERS: 'It spreads like a common cold'

EUGENE, Ore. -- A SARS-like virus is sweeping the Middle East, and local health officials are hoping to let people know more about it.

In 2012, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus was found in Saudi Arabia. The illness has since sprung up throughout the Arabian Peninsula, and there are several documented cases in Italy, England, and France.

Out of 94 confirmed cases there have been 46 deaths. County health officer Patrick Luedtke said scientists are still trying to figure out the cause and how to treat the disease.

"It's really important to say this is not a public health emergency (locally)," said Luedtke. "There have been a hundred confirmed cases on the planet of seven billion people. It's something we're watching."

The illness hasn't been found in the United States, but local officials are holding a town hall meeting Thursday night to inform the public about the virus.

"It's a respiratory illness. It has a fifty percent mortality rate which is very, very high," said Jason Davis, a member of Lane County Health Services. "That's one of the reasons we're so concerned. It is highly contagious, so it spreads just like a common cold would."

Davis said the county health services department is taking preventative measures because Lane County is home to thousands of international travelers and students.

The disease is a concern for international University of Oregon students like Mohammad Buaysha.

"One of our relatives died, and I said 'What is the cause of their death?' They said they don't know yet. We just know there is a new disease that's spreading now," said Buaysha.

People experiencing shortness of breath or coughing after having traveled or contact with someone who has traveled to the Middle East should see a doctor.

Thursday's public town hall meeting on the MERS coronavirus is taking place at 6 pm at UO's Ford Alumni Center.