MERS disease is a highly contagious and potentially life-threatening illness caused by the coronavirus. Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS for short, has been found in Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Qatar, Yemen, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. However, several other countries have reported cases of the coronavirus in individuals who had travelled to the Middle East or those that had been in contact with an infected individual who had spent time in the Middle East.
How MERS spreads
Scientists are yet to discover the way in which the MERS-CoV infection passes from person to person. However, they believe that the virus may spread in a similar way to that of the flu virus. This means that healthy individuals may suffer from MERS after coming into contact with droplets of saliva (unseen by the naked eye) coughed or sneezed into the air by infected individuals. Less often, they may develop MERS by touching a surface or object contaminated with the coronavirus and then touching their face with their unwashed hands.
Symptoms of MERS
MERS-CoV causes flu-like symptoms that usually begin two to 14 days after infection. They include:
- High temperature (fever)
- Shortness of breath
The virus can also affect the digestive system, causing symptoms such as diarrhoea. The symptoms of MERS are usually most profound in the elderly and in people with weakened immune systems.
Treatment for MERS
There is currently no cure for the MERS coronavirus infection, but research to find a vaccine is currently underway. The treatment for the illness is mainly supportive, and may include:
- Ventilation, which delivers oxygen to the lungs
- Antimicrobial therapy, which involves administering treatments to kill the bacteria and viruses that can cause secondary infections in the infected patient
- Steroid medications, which reduce swelling in the lungs
People travelling to the Middle East should take steps to protect themselves from coronavirus infection. Evidence suggests that camels, bats and other animals may play a role in MERS-CoV transmission, so as a general precaution, travellers should avoid visiting farms, zoos, markets and other places where animals may be present. If they do encounter animals, they should wash their hands before and after coming into contact with animals, avoid touching their face with their unwashed hands, and distance themselves from seemingly sick animals. Travellers should also refrain from consuming raw or undercooked animal products, including camel milk and meat, as these products may increase the risk of MERS coronavirus (MERS-CoV) infection.