What Is MERS?

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When Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) was first identified in 2012, the alarm bells sounded — and they rang loudly. Calling the coronavirus the greatest threat to world health today, Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, said in her closing speech to the 66th session of the World Health Assembly, "we understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat."

Since then, we haven’t seen the gloom and doom that some feared; nonetheless, it’s not a virus to be taken lightly. And with the announcement in May of the first case of MERS to hit the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is closely monitoring the situation and is working with international partners to better understand the risks of this virus, including where it came from, how it spreads, and how it can be treated and stopped.

It is caused by what is called a novel coronavirus; a family of viruses named for the crown-like spikes on their surface; human coronaviruses were first discovered in the mid 1960s. They are common viruses that most people get at some point in their lives. They cause diseases ranging from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Human coronaviruses usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses. Coronaviruses can also infect animals. Sometimes you might see Middle East Respiratory Syndrome referred to as MERS-CoV, the CoV represents the coronavirus component.

Although some who have contracted MERS have had few or no symptoms, most confirmed cases of MERS have resulted in acute respiratory illness with fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Some have also reported gastrointestinal symptoms including diarrhea and nausea/vomiting. About 30 percent of those who have contracted MERS have died; most of those who have perished also had an underlying medical condition such as diabetes or cancer, or chronic lung, heart or kidney disease.

So far, all the cases have been linked to countries in the Arabian Peninsula, and include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen and Lebanon. Countries that have reported travel-related cases include the United Kingdom, France, Tunisia, Italy, Malaysia, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, the United States and the Netherlands. The virus spreads from having close contact with (like cohabitating or caring for) infected people. The CDC says there is no evidence of sustained spreading in community settings.

Nobody is quite sure yet where the virus came from, although most agree it was likely from an animal source. MERS-CoV has been found in camels in Qatar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as in bats. Camels in a few other places have also tested positive for antibodies to MERS-CoV, showing that they had at some point been infected with it or a closely related virus.

To date, there have been more than 570 confirmed cases of MERS, including 171 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. In Saudi Arabia, more than 100 people have died from it since it was first identified; more than 30 of those have been in the last month. And while the death rate numbers sound scary and all new pathogens are definitely something to be concerned about, experts now say that MERS is a long way off from becoming a global health threat.

The CDC notes that in the U.S., MERS represents “a very low risk to the general public.”

As New Republic magazine pointed out earlier, “Four hundred cases of MERS have been reported since the first case was diagnosed in Saudi Arabia in 2012. In the past hour, more than 400 people died of other infectious diseases such as AIDS, TB, malaria and diarrhea.”

There are no travel restrictions to the Arabian Peninsula; however, the CDC recommends that people who travel there keep track of their health and be aware of any flu-like symptoms. If you do feel sick after visiting, be sure to tell your doctor where you have been.

And while you're at it, keeping your hands well-washed can’t hurt.