If you’re traveling to the Middle East or to South Korea, you should become familiar with a relatively new disease known as MERS. We have prepared a short Q&A outlining what is known about this disease and how to help protect yourself from infection.
What is MERS?
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, is relatively new viral respiratory illness. Like SARS, MERS is a coronavirus.
Symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath and myalgia (muscle pain). One quarter of MERS patients also report diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
The incubation period is estimated to be around five or six days, but it could be as short as two days and as long as two weeks. Again, these are estimates.
How widespread is MERS? How fatal is it?
To date, 1,338 people have been infected world-wide. 484 have died from the disease. The overall case fatality rate is 36.2%.
South Korea is experiencing a relatively large outbreak at the moment, the largest to date outside the Arabian peninsula.
How can I avoid MERS infection while traveling?
Avoid contact with sick persons. Wash your hands regularly with soap and water (or alcohol-based hand sanitizer).
Most of the human-to-human infections appear to have occurred in a healthcare setting, such as at a hospital or in a home. It appears that healthcare workers or family members taking care of a patient are at particular risk.
If you are traveling in the Middle East (or another area with camels), the World Healthcare Organization (WHO) advises avoiding contact with camels. Do not come in contact with raw camel milk, camel urine or uncooked camel meat. Cooked camel meat and pasteurized camel milk is considered ok per WHO guidelines.
How long has MERS existed?
The first diagnosed case of MERS in humans was in 2012, in Saudi Arabia. Further cases appeared later that year in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Where did MERS come from?
The disease is believed to have passed from animals to humans. Bats are believed to be the original source of the virus; however transmission to humans appears to have occurred from infected camels. It’s possible that camels in the region have been infected with the virus since the 1990s. Camel handlers in the Saudi peninsula appeared to be among the first human cases of the disease.
Where are the MERS Infection outbreaks located?
The website www.coronamap.com uses World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health data from each affected country to track the spread of MERS.
Over 20 countries have reported cases, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Turkey, Oman, South Korea, mainland China and Thailand.
As of today, South Korea has 13.3% of global MERS infections with 178 diagnosed cases, 23 of which have resulted in deaths.
Why does MERS seem to hopscotch across the globe?
The Saudi economy relies extensively on foreign workers. It is thought the regular transit on long-distance airplane flights by foreign workers back to their home countries has contributed to MERS’ sudden appearance in seemingly unrelated locations.
Is MERS likely to create a worldwide health crisis like Ebola?
Unlike Ebola, the MERS virus is relatively inefficient at human-to-human infection. As long as the MERS virus does change significantly, it is not likely to rapidly escalate into a worldwide health crisis like Ebola did.
However, if the MERS virus mutates significantly and becomes more efficient at human-to-human transmission, all bets are off. Some scientists are very worried about this possibility.
Is there a test for MERS?
Because the United States declared that MERS is a threat to public health back in May 2013, there are specific rules which allow emergency in vitro tests of MERS virus.
The CDC has reportedly tested three polymerase chain reaction (PCR) based tests: RealStar MERS-CoV RT-PCR Kit from Altona Diagnostics, the FTD hCoV-EMC from Fast-track Diagnostics, and the genesig Novel Coronavirus hCoV-MERS from Primerdesign.
Is there a treatment for MERS?
To date, there is no treatment or vaccination against MERS.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) issued a report (PDF file, opens in new window) in 2013 outlining steps needed to create a MERS vaccine.