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

MERS-CoV infection refers to a viral respiratory illness called Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) that's caused by a coronavirus (CoV).

Coronaviruses cause some cases of the common cold. But viruses in this group — such as MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19 — also cause serious illness.

MERS-CoV was first reported in Saudi Arabia. Since then, it's been reported in other countries in the Middle East and in Africa, Europe, Asia and the United States. Most infections outside of the Middle East have been reported by people who recently traveled there.

MERS-CoV infection ranges from mild to severe. Some people experience no symptoms or symptoms similar to those of a mild upper respiratory infection.

But people can have fever and cough that progress to pneumonia. Sometimes, people experience digestive system symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The kidneys and the lining around the heart also can be affected.

MERS-CoV infection can lead to respiratory or kidney failure and is sometimes fatal. You're most at risk of serious illness if you are older than age 60, have a weakened immune system, or have a chronic disease, such as diabetes, kidney or lung disease.

Treatment for MERS-CoV infection focuses on relieving symptoms and includes rest, fluids, pain relievers and, in severe cases, oxygen therapy.

What can you do?

Unlike the viruses that cause influenza or the common cold, MERS-CoV infection doesn't seem to spread easily among people in communities.

MERS-CoV has spread mostly among people who come in contact with dromedary camels, such as shepherds or camel owners. Also at higher risk are people living with or providing direct care to an infected person.

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

  • When washing your hands, vigorously wash 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 (WHO) 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.

The WHO recommends that people who are at high risk of serious illness avoid contact with camels. This includes not drinking raw camel milk or eating undercooked camel meat. When visiting places where camels are present, the WHO suggests that people who are at high risk pay special attention to good hygiene precautions.

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

History of SARS/MERS: Outbreak and vaccine timeline

With

Pritish K. Tosh, M.D.

Feb. 04, 2023 See more Expert Answers