Disease threats are very real

Several years ago, the book and resultant movie “Outbreak” sparked some public interest in diseases that spread like wildfire and are virtually impossible to treat. Now, it seems, people are more interested in zombies.

But a reminder of the potential for a very real worldwide plague came last week. A disease about which relatively little is known, Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, reached the United States for the first time.

Hundreds of people in various areas of the world have contracted MERS. About 100 have died.

Every victim had ties to the Middle East, where the disease seems to have made the jump from camels to humans. The U.S. victim had recently flown home after a stint as a health care worker in Saudi Arabia. Fortunately, he is in good condition in an Indiana hospital.

MERS is not highly contagious and probably does not pose a big threat to most people. But the speed with which it spread out of the Middle East is another in a series of wakeup calls about deadly viruses and bacteria.

Public health agencies have to cope with a variety of priorities, ranging from smoking in public to immunizing people against influenza. Clearly, threats such as MERS and diseases about which we may not even know yet should be placed high on the priority list – with accompanying government funding.