What Is MERS?

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Can Cause Serious Symptoms

MERS stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. It is a respiratory illness that is caused by a previously unseen variant of a coronavirus. Other variations of coronavirus have caused SARS and COVID-19.

MERS was first detected in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Most cases have occurred in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Yemen, with some also in Europe. Only two cases have been diagnosed in the United States.

Dromedary camel

Bruno Guerreiro / Getty Images

According to public health officials, MERS is most similar to a strain of coronavirus previously found in bats. Researchers are studying the role of bats in the origin of COVID-19 as well.

MERS may also be listed as MERS-CoV, with the "CoV" representing coronavirus. Coronaviruses are one of several types of viruses that cause colds and respiratory infections.

Symptoms and Complications

MERS is a respiratory illness, and its symptoms can be severe. They may include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

Like COVID-19 symptoms, some people with MERS have severe symptoms, mild cold-like symptoms, or no symptoms at all. Diarrhea and nausea or vomiting may also be symptoms.

Complications for MERS can include pneumonia and kidney failure. About three or four out of every 10 people diagnosed with MERS have died.

People with chronic health problems or suppressed immune systems may be at higher risk for infection or death from the virus. These can include diabetes, chronic lung disease, chronic heart disease, chronic kidney disease, and cancer.

MERS symptoms can be similar to those of many other respiratory illnesses, such as COVID-19, the common cold, and influenza. If you have symptoms, tell your doctor if you have traveled to an area where MERS has been found.

Recap

MERS symptoms can be mild or severe. People with chronic health issues are more likely to have complications. About 30% to 40% of patients with MERS have died.

Warnings

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) haven't issued official warnings about traveling to affected areas. However, if you experience symptoms within 14 days of traveling to an area with MERS, seek medical attention. This includes if you've traveled to the Middle East or Arabian Peninsula.

Prevention

When traveling, be sure to use common sense tips to avoid getting sick.

  • Wash your hands
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you can't wash your hands
  • Avoid people who are sick
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Be sure you are up to date with your vaccines. Check with your healthcare provider four to six weeks before travel to see if you need any additional vaccines.

If you get sick:

Recap

When traveling, take precautions like washing your hands and avoiding people who are sick. If you do get sick, let your doctor know, and be sure to mention where you traveled.

Treatments

There is currently no treatment for MERS. Because it is a virus, antibiotics are ineffective, and, at this point, doctors are only able to try to treat the symptoms.

Many people who have been diagnosed with MERS have had very severe symptoms, and a third has died.

Researchers are working on trying to identify treatments for the virus and reduce the fatality rate.

Other Concerns

The CDC and WHO are working on developing treatments and a vaccine for MERS, but there is much work to do. Researchers still don't know much about the virus other than that it is severe and does appear to spread from person to person.

MERS has a higher fatality rate than COVID-19. However, COVID-19 has resulted in far more deaths because it's much more contagious. MERS does not pass easily between people unless there's close, unprotected contact. Most of the MERS cases reported have been in health care settings.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), most human cases of MERS spread from human-to-human contact. However, camels are likely to be another source of infection, since they can also carry the virus. Right now, the exact role of camels in transmitting the virus is unknown.

The CDC has developed a testing kit they have distributed to state health departments. If cases of MERS are suspected in the United States, these testing kits can help public health officials with diagnosis. Further testing is also available from the CDC.

The CDC and WHO continue to try to learn more about the virus and monitor the situation as it changes.

Recap

Researchers are working on finding treatments for MERS. The fatality rate for MERS is high at about 30%. However, it doesn't pass easily between people unless they have close, unprotected contact.

Summary

MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, is a type of coronavirus that can cause serious illness and even death. Its fatality rate is higher than COVID-19, but it doesn't spread as easily between people. Most cases have occurred in Saudi Arabia. As of right now, there is no treatment for MERS.

A Word From Verywell

In most places, the risk of MERS is low. However, public health officials continue to monitor MERS to help prevent the disease from spreading. Check with your doctor if you have any questions about symptoms or preventing MERS while traveling.

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