What is Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)?

1. What is MERS?

You’ve undoubtedly seen the search term “MERS” popping up in news and social media feeds. MERS (or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is a severe pneumonia-like respiratory disease that’s a subtype of the SARS (or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus. MERS is more precisely a type of coronavirus (specifically MERS-CoV) that was discovered in the Middle East in 2012.

2. How Does MERS Present?

The potentially fatal Middle East virus causes the pneumonia (or inflammation of the lung airways), as MERS progresses, the lungs become filled with fluid, which restricts breathing and oxygen transport to the blood—resulting in extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and fever.

3. How Does MERS Virus Spread?

MERS infection most typically spreads via close contact with an infected person. For instance, the main hotspots for the virus have been health care facilities. You could also contract MERS if you live closely with an infected person or share respiratory fluids and secretions with an infected person (i.e., a partner or spouse).

4. Contraction of MERS

Scientists are still rather puzzled by the exact way the virus spreads and consider MERS rather difficult to contract between people compared to a virus like SARS.

5. The Main Symptoms of MERS

MERS presents itself similar to a respiratory infection or pneumonia, common symptoms include:

  • A nagging or wheezy cough
  • Shortness of breath and labored breathing
  • High fever (above 100.4-degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Swollen glands that are painful to the touch
  • Diarrhea and digestive upset

6. Animal to Human Contraction of MERS

Scientists at the University of Columbia as well as mammologists from King Saud University and the Saudi Wildlife Authority recently tied the sudden spike in new MERS infections (from 15 new cases every month in 2012 to new daily cases since April 2014) in areas of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to camels, or more precisely through unpasteurized camel milk, where the virus can remain infectious for up to 72 hours, and also via farms, animal markets, and private residences where camels live on the premises.

7. Complications from MERS

MERS is a potentially fatal illness if treatment is not sought. Many people who succumb to the disease either develop kidney issues and eventual failure. However, those at highest risk have underlying medical conditions (i.e., diabetes) or a history of health conditions (i.e., cardiovascular disease) that make them more susceptible to MERS.

8. Current MERS Fatalities

The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed 261 MERS cases through laboratory testing since its origin in 2012. However, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control estimates MERS infection is closer to 424, with 131 individuals succumbing to the virus.

9. MERS Risk in North America

US health officials confirmed the first North American case of MERS in early May 2014. The patient was a US health-care worker who recently spent time in Saudi Arabia and returned to Indiana infected with the virus. The patient made a full recovery and didn’t pass the virus on to anyone else.

10. Is MERS a Threat to the North American public?

Since its inception in 2012, MERS has been concentrated in the Middle East, and transported to Europe, Africa and Asia. However, doctors at the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases with the Centers for Disease Control consider the threat to the North American public, “very low,” even though many foreign diseases are just a “plane ride away.”