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10 Essential Facts About MERS
As reports of deaths from MERS climb, and Thailand confirms their first case, concerns grow over this little-understood infection. Learn about the symptoms.
By Jennifer J. Brown, PhD
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If you travel to South Korea or the Middle East, you may have wondered about MERS (Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome). What are the symptoms of MERS infection?
- Shortness of breath
- Diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting in some people
Should you be concerned about contracting MERS? If you have been in a South Korean healthcare facility in the last few weeks, or in close contact with a traveler from the Arabian Peninsula who was sick, yes.
But if you are living in the United States, no — experts agree the risk for MERS is very low here, and in most parts of the world.
In the wake of the infectious MERS outbreak in South Korea, thousands of schools were closed, and MERS patients have been separated from other patients in hospitals. These steps may help prevent spread of the disease, which was brought to South Korea by a single traveler on May 20, as reported by the World Health Organization (WHO).
To date, 29 people have died, 180 cases have been confirmed, while thousands more were quarantined for possible infection during the outbreak, the WHO reports. Although travel alerts were issued by Hong Kong and Macau to avoid unnecessary trips to South Korea, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not currently recommend Americans change travel plans to South Korea or anywhere else due to MERS.
What is this emerging disease that spread so quickly in South Korea?
MERS is primarily a respiratory illness. But it can range from an infection with no symptoms at all, to a mild upper respiratory illness like a cold, to a severe illness leading to pneumonia and respiratory failure, says Steve Lawrence, MD, infectious disease specialist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Fever, chills, headache, cough, and shortness of breath have been the most common symptoms in people who are sick enough to be hospitalized,” Dr. Lawrence says.
Knowing who’s actually affected is difficult because the telltale signs of MERS are much like those of other common infections, the flu for example. “Overall, these are very similar to influenza, and one may not be able to differentiate between the two based on the symptoms,” Lawrence explains.
These 10 essential facts about the who, what, why, where, and how of MERS will ease your fears.
1. Most cases of MERS have been in Saudi Arabia. The current MERS outbreak is centered in South Korea, with only one case each confirmed in China, the Philippines, and Thailand this year. Most cases since the discovery of the virus have been in one country — Saudi Arabia. MERS infections were first reported in 2012 in that country. Only two U.S. cases of MERS have been reported — in 2014 — and both were in health workers from Saudi Arabia who traveled to the United States (to Indiana and Florida). Both recovered completely after hospitalization, the CDC reports.
You may be at , according to the CDC, if you:
- Were recently in a South Korean clinic or hospital
- Have been in close contact with a person who had MERS
- Have traveled from or been in close contact with a sick traveler from Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, or Yemen.
2. About 37 percent of patients who were diagnosed with MERS have died.While MERS is rare, it can be deadly. As of June 19, a total of 1,338 cases and 475 deaths from MERS have been reported to the WHO since 2012, by 26 countries. Pneumonia and kidney failure are two complications of a MERS infection that can be fatal.
3. A virus called MERS-CoV causes the disease known as MERS.MERS-CoV belongs to a group of related pathogens known as coronaviruses (hence the CoV in the name). The virus is a tiny particle with protruding spikes that look like crowns, giving it the name “corona.” Coronaviruses — the common cold is one — usually cause only mild upper-respiratory disease. But some, like MERS and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), can be fatal.
4. The origin of MERS is unknown, but it probably came from an animal.In fact, MERS-CoV infections of camels have been reported and may put a person at risk too, according to the CDC. Camels not only carry MERS but can also be a source of infection for people, warns the WHO. Farm workers, slaughterhouse workers, and veterinarians may be at higher risk for infection with MERS-CoV from camels, their raw milk, or raw or undercooked meat.
5. A person with a chronic condition is more susceptible to a severe case of MERS.“While it appears that people of all ages and health conditions can be infected with the MERS coronavirus,” says Lawrence, “severe illness is much more likely to occur in older people with chronic medical conditions such as chronic lung, heart, or kidney disease.”
6. MERS spreads from person to person in close contact.The precise way MERS is spread is still a mystery, but the CDC notes that coughing is one way the disease may be passed on to close contacts. Symptoms may appear anywhere from 2 to 14 days after you’re exposed to MERS-CoV. Health workers caring for people who have MERS, and family members or others caring for someone infected with MERS are most likely to catch the infection.
7. There is no MERS vaccine and no MERS-specific drug treatment.Because of the lack of a vaccine, health experts stress the importance of avoiding personal contact with a person who is ill. MERS treatment relies on supportive care to prevent organ failure and death, because no specific antiviral drugs are known to be effective.
8. If you are believed to have MERS and come to the United States, the CDC may detain you.Like anyone with a disease that requires quarantine, if you have MERS you could be forcibly separated from others. That’s the result of an executive order signed by President Obama that has been in place since 2014, when MERS cases spiked in the Middle East. Quarantine is meant to prevent spread of severe acute respiratory diseases like MERS.
9. You can protect yourself from MERS by washing your hands frequently (and avoiding camels).“Common-sense measures that are applicable for protecting oneself from many travel-related infections are also pertinent for MERS prevention,” says Lawrence. These include the following precautions:
- Make sure you are up to date with recommended vaccinations.
- Avoid obviously ill people when possible.
- Wash your hands frequently, particularly before you eat.
- Avoid contact with camels and their meat or milk. “They are the suspected main animal reservoir for the MERS coronavirus,” Lawrence explains.
10. The U.S. general public is at very low risk for MERS.
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