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MERS coronavirus

4-minute read

This page does not include information about the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). For specific information about that virus, visit this page.

What is Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)?

Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus is a disease that can cause severe respiratory (breathing) problems.

Coronaviruses are found in many different species, including birds and mammals, and include the virus that causes the common cold. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV. COVID-19 is caused by another type of coronavirus called SARS‐CoV‐2.

MERS is not as contagious as COVID-19, but it is much more deadly. MERS was first identified in 2012, and has infected more than 2,500 people worldwide. Of these, more than 880 have died.

So far, everybody who has had MERS has lived in or travelled to the Middle East, has had contact with travellers from the area or can be linked to an imported case. There have been no cases of MERS in Australia.

How is MERS spread?

MERS is a zoonotic disease, which means it spreads from animals to people. MERS gets into human populations from dromedary camels. Exactly how it 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 one person to another unless there is very close contact, but the way it spreads is not well understood.

What are the symptoms of MERS?

Symptoms of MERS usually start about 5 or 6 days after infection, but they can start as soon as 2 days or up to 14 days. Symptoms often include:

About a 1 in 3 people who have contracted MERS have died. Most severe cases and deaths have occurred in people with underlying illnesses that may make them more likely to get respiratory infections.

How is MERS diagnosed?

MERS is diagnosed from a swab taken from the back of the throat or fluid from the lungs.

How is MERS treated?

There is no specific treatment or vaccine for MERS, but early medical care can save lives.

How can MERS be prevented?

If you go to the Middle East, you should wash your hands often, especially before eating and after touching animals. Use a hand sanitiser if soap and water is not available. Make sure all your vaccinations are up to date before you travel.

You should avoid consuming raw camel milk or urine, undercooked camel meat and anything camels have touched. If you have a health condition that makes you more likely to catch a lung disease, you should avoid any contact with camels in the Middle East.

If you become unwell while travelling in the Middle East, don’t wait until you arrive back in Australia to seek medical assistance. See a doctor or go the local hospital's emergency department.

If you feel sick after you return from the Middle East, see your doctor immediately if you develop symptoms of MERS. Avoid contact with other people and make sure you wash your hands regularly

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

Last reviewed: October 2020

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