I've heard about the MERS-CoV infection. What is it, and is there anything I need to do to protect myself?

Answers from James M. Steckelberg, M.D.

Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is a viral respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus — the same family of viruses that causes the common cold — called MERS-CoV. MERS-CoV was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Since then, it's been reported in other countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia and the United States. Most cases outside of the Middle East have been reported by people who recently traveled there.

MERS-CoV primarily causes fever, cough and shortness of breath. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Pneumonia is common, and sometimes it may cause injury to organs, such as the kidneys.

Treatment for MERS-CoV is directed at relieving symptoms and includes rest, fluids, pain relievers and oxygen therapy in severe cases.

About 30 percent of people with MERS-CoV have died. You're most at risk of serious illness if you're an older adult or if you have a weakened immune system or a chronic disease, such as diabetes or lung disease.

What can you do?

Unlike influenza or the common cold, MERS-CoV doesn't seem to spread readily among people in communities. Instead, MERS-CoV has spread mostly among people who are in close contact, such as people living with or providing direct care for an infected person.

There's currently no vaccine to prevent MERS-CoV. However, as with any virus, you can reduce your risk of infection by using good health and hygiene practices:

  • Vigorously wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw used tissues in the trash immediately, and then wash your hands carefully.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as doorknobs.
  • Avoid touching your face, mouth and nose with unwashed hands.
  • Don't share cups, utensils or other items with sick people.

Is it OK to travel?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization are closely monitoring the virus. They're currently not recommending changing your plans if you're traveling to the Middle East or other places where the virus has been reported.

If you've traveled to the Arabian Peninsula or a neighboring country and you develop a fever and symptoms of MERS-CoV within 14 days of returning, see your doctor and discuss your recent travel.

May 24, 2014