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Key facts

  • Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is a rare disease.
  • MERS is caused by a coronavirus (MERS‐CoV).
  • MERS symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

This page does not include information about COVID-19. For information on COVID-19, visit this page.

What is Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)?

Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is a rare disease. It causes bad respiratory (breathing) problems. MERS was first identified in 2012.

MERS is caused by Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS‐CoV).

Coronaviruses also cause:

MERS has infected more than 2,600 people worldwide. Of these, more than 935 people have died. Most cases have happened in Saudi Arabia.

What are the symptoms of MERS?

Symptoms of MERS usually start 5 to 6 days after infection. But this can range from 2 days to 14 days.

Symptoms often include:

Other symptoms can include:

Some people who have MERS have:

  • mild symptoms
  • no symptoms (asymptomatic)

MERS is a serious illness. About 1 in 3 people who contract MERS die.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes MERS?

MERS is caused by Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS‐CoV). The virus was first seen in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

MERS is a zoonotic disease, which means it spreads from animals to people.

MERS can be spread to humans from infected dromedary camels. It is spread by close contact with:

  • camels
  • camel products
  • infected people

Exactly how MERS spreads from camels to people is not well understood.

No cases of MERS have been found in camels in Australia.

The virus doesn’t appear to spread easily from person to person. The way MERS spreads between people isn’t well understood.

When should I see my doctor?

If you become unwell while travelling in the Middle East, get medical help. Go the local hospital's emergency department. Don’t wait until you arrive back in Australia to see your doctor.

If you feel sick after you return from the Middle East, see your doctor immediately. Avoid contact with other people and make sure you wash your hands often.

How is MERS diagnosed?

MERS is diagnosed by:

  • testing a swab taken from the back of your throat
  • testing fluid from your lungs

So far, everybody who has had MERS:

  • has lived in or travelled to the Middle East
  • has had contact with travellers from the area
  • can be linked to a case

There have been no cases of MERS in Australia.

How is MERS treated?

There is no specific treatment for MERS. Early medical care can save lives.

Can MERS be prevented?

There is currently no vaccination to protect you against MERS.

If you go to the Middle East, you should:

  • avoid close contact with camels
  • avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • wash your hands often

Wash your hands:

  • before eating
  • after touching animals

Use a hand sanitiser if soap and water is not available.

You should avoid:

  • drinking raw camel milk or urine (wee)
  • eating undercooked camel meat

Avoid all contact with camels if you have an existing health condition that makes you vulnerable to breathing problems.

Make sure all your vaccinations are up to date before you travel. Talk with your doctor and decide whether the risk of travelling to the Middle East is appropriate for you at this time.

Complications of MERS

MERS seems to cause worse disease in:

If you have one or more of these conditions, you should avoid ALL contact with camels in the Middle East.

Resources and support

To find out more about MERS you can call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2023

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