MERS FAQ: What You Need to Know

The First U.S. Case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Has Been Diagnosed

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH

May 5, 2014 -- The deadly respiratory virus known as MERS is now in the U.S.

The virus, which first surfaced in Saudi Arabia in 2012, has mostly been found in the Middle East. It is a close cousin of the deadly SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus that infected more than 8,000 people worldwide in 2003, killing 774. Unlike SARS, MERS does not appear to spread that easily from person to person.

Here are answers to the most frequently asked questions about MERS.

What is MERS?

MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome, is an illness caused by a virus called a coronavirus. It is also sometimes referred to as MERS-CoV, for Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus. It is in the same family as the SARS virus.

Coronaviruses are common globally, the CDC says. Five different types can make people sick. They also infect animals.

Although some coronaviruses cause mild to moderate upper respiratory illness, MERS, like SARS, can cause severe illness and death.

What are the symptoms of MERS?

The most common symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

How common is MERS?

To date, 401 cases of MERS have been confirmed in 12 countries, the CDC reported Friday. Of those, 93 people have died.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for MERS. But doctors can treat the patient's symptoms.

How is MERS spread? How contagious is it?

Officials say it most often spreads between people who are in close contact. Infected patients, for instance, have spread the virus to health care workers. The virus does not appear to spread easily among people in public settings, such as a shopping mall.

Anne Schuchat, MD, director of National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, said the infected U.S. man is "a very low risk" to the general public.

Where has it been found?

In addition to Saudi Arabia, five countries have laboratory-confirmed MERS cases, the CDC says. These are:

  • United Arab Emirates
  • Qatar
  • Oman
  • Jordan
  • Kuwait

Plus, six countries have travel-associated cases. These people traveled to the six countries where MERS is found. These countries are:

  • United Kingdom
  • France
  • Tunisia
  • Italy
  • Malaysia
  • U.S.

Where did this virus come from?

Public health officials believe it came from an animal source but are still doing research. The virus has been found in camels in Qatar, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. It's also been found in a bat in Saudi Arabia. But officials can't say for sure if camels are the source of the virus. For now, they say that camels, bats, and other animals may play a role in where the virus comes from and how it spreads.

Is there a vaccine?

No vaccine is available. The CDC is talking about creating one.

Is anyone more susceptible to the virus?

The virus is more dangerous for people with pre-existing conditions or problems with their immune systems.

What can travelers do?

The CDC is not advising that people change their travel plans due to MERS. But it does suggest that people traveling to countries with MERS watch their health, wash their hands often, and avoid people who are sick.

Adults should help young children thoroughly wash their hands. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good substitute if soap and water are not at hand.

Travelers who recently went to countries where MERS has been found should watch their health when they return. If the typical symptoms -- cough, shortness of breath, and fever -- develop within 14 days of travel to a country that has had MERS cases, travelers should contact their doctor and discuss their recent travel.

What else is known about the first confirmed U.S. case?

The man, an American citizen, is a health care worker who was working in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Officials are not sure if he got the virus through his hospital work. He traveled from Riyadh to London, England. He then went from London to Chicago and took a bus from Chicago to Indiana on April 24. Three days later, he noticed symptoms and went to the emergency room of an Indiana hospital on April 28. The patient is now in isolation at Community Hospital in Munster. He is doing well and will likely be discharged soon, a hospital spokesman says. He will remain in isolation at home.

What is the CDC doing to prevent the spread of MERS in the U.S.?

The CDC will be getting in touch with passengers who were on the same plane and bus as the infected health care worker. They are also watching health care workers who came in contact with the patient. All have been restricted to their homes. All 50 of these workers have tested negative for the virus, the hospital spokesman says.

WebMD News Editor Valarie Basheda contributed to this story.

SOURCES: News release, CDC. CDC: "Coronavirus. Frequently Asked Questions." News release, Indiana State Department of Health. CDC: "Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Fact Sheet." CDC news conference, May 2, 2014. Chicago Tribune: "Health officials to hold briefing today on first U.S. MERS case." Alan Kumar, MD, chief medical information officer, Community Hospital, Munster, IN.

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