What You Should Know About MERS: Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome

James Thompson, MD Health Pro
  • "MERS" stands for Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus and was originally reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Since that time it has spread to many other countries particularly in and around the Arabian Peninsula. As of this month 635 cases around the world have been laboratory confirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO). There have been 193 deaths (30% death rate).


    World travel has led to the spread of MERS from Saudi Arabia and nearby countries to several distant countries including two others in Asia, five in Europe, two in Africa and the United States (within the last four weeks). There have been two reported cases in America, one in Indiana and one in Florida. Both individuals had been in Saudi Arabia and were involved in healthcare while there. They were hospitalized after coming to the U.S., isolated and tested before being discharged. They had fully recovered from the illness.

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    A few weeks ago a third case was reported in Illinois but subsequent tests proved negative for MERS. Currently there are only two confirmed reports of MERS in the United States.


    It’s hard to say there is any good news about an infection that can end your life within days of contracting it. Yet there are some good things to report about this potentially lethal virus. But let’s discuss some key facts.


    MERS has been officially named MERS-CoV which identifies the fact that it belongs to the coronavirus family. Many children and most adults have previously had infections with other member of the coronavirus family, particularly ones associated with the common cold. Coronaviruses account for about 20% of common cold infections. But MERs-CoV greatly differs from its common cold siblings by being associated with a broader array of symptoms and death.

    Symptoms and signs of MERS-CoV infection are almost identical to flu syndrome:

    -Fever greater than or equal to 100’F




    -Runny nose


    -Shortness of breath




    -Body aches


    -Sore throat


    -Nausea and vomiting






    -Kidney dysfunction/failure


    There is currently no cure or antiviral agent available to treat MERS-CoV. People who have died from it often had previous chronic illnesses. There is currently no vaccine available to treat it.


    You must be thinking “So what’s the good news?”

    The good news is:


    -MERS-CoV is not nearly as communicable as the common cold viruses. So far only two reported cases in North America. Human to human transfer of the virus via casual contact is infrequent. Healthcare workers in high risk areas (Arabian Peninsula) are at much greater risk.


    -The two cases here have been mild and non-life threatening with no evidence of spread to contacts after getting here.


    -Scientists have tests to rapidly identify the virus and within days have results to confirm whether it is present.


    Despite penetration into several other countries and multiple continents MERS-CoV has not evolved into a worldwide pandemic.


    -Healthcare officials have rigorous protocols to isolate suspected cases and expediently identify family members, friends and other contacts for further prevention of spread.


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    What Should We Do To Avoid Infection With MERS-CoV?


    The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends:


    1)    Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Cough or sneeze into tissue if possible and throw the tissue away afterwards.


    2)    Always wash your hands before eating or touching your face. Use hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available.


    3)    Clean off surfaces used by others before using them. Important areas include table and desk tops, door knobs, toys, keyboards, phones, tools and utensils.


    4)    Avoid contact with people who are ill, coughing or sneezing.


    5)    Don’t share cups and utensils with people who are sick (probably not a good thing to share cups and eating utensils with anyone).


    What about Travel?     


    The WHO and CDC are not restricting world travel at this time. Travel to the Middle East is okay but if you have cold or flu symptoms within two weeks of returning from a country in or around the Arabian Peninsula you should see your doctor. Be sure to mention your concerns and your history of travel.


    Final Words

    MERS-CoV will likely be around for a while. Research suggests several animals may contract the virus and possibly transmit it to humans. In fact, animal to human transmission may explain how it emerged in the first place (possibly from camels or bats). The CDC and WHO will continue to team up to track the footprints of this virus. If it were to mutate to a more contagious and deadly infectious virus many people around the world would be at risk, as seen in flu epidemics. For this reason it is important to stay tuned to news media and our Cold and Flu site.







Published On: May 30, 2014