The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus has spread to yet another Asian nation: Thailand. Malaysia and the Philippines were the first to report cases of MERS in early April, and China later confirmed one case. South Korea has experienced the largest outbreak of MERS. With the new MERS case in Thailand, there is growing concern that the disease will continue to spread. Though it is unlikely to spread to the U.S., we should be prepared.

MERS first emerged in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. Originally from camels, the virus now infects humans and causes fevers and pneumonia-like symptoms. It is transmittable by respiratory droplets, and spreads through close contact with an infected person, which is the reason why the virus has been able to spread in South Korean hospitals.

One hundred sixty-nine people in South Korea have been diagnosed with MERS and 25 people have died from the disease. In response to the outbreak, South Korea has placed 6,729 under quarantine. South Korea also temporarily closed down schools (schools have since reopened), quarantined entire clinics, and disinfected public spaces. The outbreak even prompted President Park Geun-hye to postpone her high-level visit to the U.S. in order to oversee efforts to contain MERS.

Although the U.S. has only seen two cases of MERS before, there is still risk that MERS will come to the States through travelers. Ebola exposed weaknesses in the country’s infection-control policies, and the U.S. should learn from past experience in fighting Ebola to institute prevention policies that would preempt and deter the spread of MERS in the country. Steve Bucci, Director of The Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, lists recommendations to the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Homeland Security to form an effective MERS prevention system:

  • Continue to actively monitor South Korea’s progress in dealing with the outbreak;
  • Ramp up credible awareness and education efforts for the general public;
  • Ramp up outreach to medical professionals to ensure they are completely prepared with the knowledge, supplies, and facilities to respond to any unexpected outbreaks in their areas;
  • Put fly-away teams of specialists on call to assist local authorities;
  • Review and rehearse screening procedures for points of entry and develop a tiered system of response at points of entry to minimize the chance of entry by an infected person; and
  • Coordinate across the U.S. government to ensure that other departments and agencies are ready to assist in the event of a MERS outbreak in the United States.

The World Health Organization has called the MERS epidemic in South Korea a “wakeup call” to the possibility of unanticipated outbreaks of serious infectious diseases. Countries, including the U.S., should all draw from past lessons of fighting epidemics to preempt viruses such as MERS and prevent them from spreading among the population.

Siyao Li is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.