Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)

Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, is a viral illness that causes severe lung infection. The disease was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and as of 2018 had only been diagnosed twice in the United States. In 2015, an outbreak affected 180 people in the Republic of Korea when the infection came in from Saudi Arabia. Overall, more than 20 countries worldwide have reported cases of MERS. 

Key Facts

  • The MERS virus causes flu-like symptoms, with most patients developing pneumonia as a secondary infection.
  • MERS is caused by a virus in the coronavirus family, and the syndrome is also called MERS-Coronavirus (MERS-CoV).
  • MERS is passed primarily to people from infected camels. It can sometimes spread between people who are in close, unprotected contact.
  • Most cases have been found in Saudi Arabia, where the virus originated. Outbreaks in other countries have been traced back to infected individuals returning from travel to the Middle East.
  • Around one-third of patients diagnosed with MERS have died, according to the CDC.

What Are the Symptoms of MERS?

MERS symptoms can range from mild to severe. People with mild MERS infection may not receive a correct diagnosis. The more common symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Cough with or without blood
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle and stomach pain and soreness
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Patients with a more severe case may rapidly develop pneumonia. They may also experience breathing failure, kidney damage, high fevers and even death.

The main symptoms of MERS are flu-like and develop from 2 to 14 days after exposure. Early diagnosis improves potential health outcomes. You should see a doctor promptly if you have traveled to affected areas, particularly the Middle East, or had contact with people known to be infected with the MERS virus and are exhibiting the above symptoms.

How MERS Is Diagnosed

Symptoms of respiratory illness and recent travel to the Middle East region should raise the suspicion that a patient may have MERS. If your doctor suspects MERS, you will have a chest X-ray, blood tests, kidney function tests and respiratory samples (lung secretions) for evaluation.

How MERS Is Treated

There is no approved treatment specifically for MERS. Most patients with mild disease recover without complications. Patients with the milder form can be treated at home and take medication for symptoms such as fever and pain. They should stay isolated to avoid spreading the disease. In more severe cases, the patient may develop lung or respiratory failure which requires them to be hospitalized. Doctors may suggest using a breathing tube, a mechanical ventilator or respirator, antibiotics and intravenous fluids.

There is no current vaccine to protect people against MERS. Updates about potential vaccinations and treatment for MERS can be found on the CDC website and World Health Organization website.

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