MERS in the Gulf: what you need to know

What is MERS? Where has it spread? And how do you avoid catching it?

Peter Iantorno August 23, 2015

Update, January 28, 2016: an Abu Dhabi man died on January 27 after contracting MERS. The figures detailed below were correct at the original time of writing.

Since 2012, MERS has infected 1,432 people and claimed 507 lives.

After the initial outbreak in Saudi Arabia three years ago, it was thought that the viral infection had been brought under control. However, more than 80 new cases of the disease have been confirmed in Saudi in the past month alone.

In an attempt to contain the MERS virus - Middle East respiratory syndrome - last weekend the emergency wing of the King Abdulaziz Medical City in Riyadh was put into lockdown.

The timing of the outbreak couldn’t be much worse, as the country prepares for the Hajj pilgrimage in late September, which will see more than two million Muslims descend on Mecca at the same time.

With such a huge influx of visitors set to come into such close contact with one another during the pilgrimage, there are serious concerns over the possibility of an even greater spread.

Of course, irrespective of the situation with MERS in the country, the Hajj pilgrimage will always go ahead, but before you set off, here’s everything you need to know about the virus.

What is MERS?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a viral respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus (MERS-CoV) that was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.”

Coronaviruses can cause a range of diseases, from minor illnesses such as the common cold to the potentially deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

What are the symptoms of MERS?

Typical symptoms of MERS include fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Most cases also suffer from pneumonia and in some cases gastrointestinal symptoms including diarrhoea have been reported.

Which countries has MERS spread to?

The vast majority (85 per cent) of reported MERS cases have been in Saudi Arabia. However, in June this year South Korea saw the first major outbreak outside the Middle East, as 33 people died and almost 17,000 people were quarantined.

MERS South Korea.jpg Although the outbreak in South Korea is now under control, residents are still cautious.

Other Middle Eastern countries with reported cases include the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Yemen. The disease has also been detected in China, Malaysia and Philippines as well as central Europe, the UK and the US, although all non-Middle Eastern cases so far have been travel related.

How deadly is MERS?

Since MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, just over a third (36 per cent) of reported patients have died. The virus tends to have a more serious effect on the elderly, people with weakened immune systems and those who already have other chronic diseases such as cancer or diabetes.

How is MERS transmitted?

Although MERS is contagious, the current strain of the disease does not pass easily from person to person unless there is prolonged close contact. A more likely route of transmission is from animals to humans. Although the role of animals is not fully understood, strains of MERS-CoV that are identical to human strains have been isolated from camels in several countries including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Egypt.

How do you avoid catching MERS?

At the moment, no vaccine or specific treatment is available to combat MERS, however, a prototype vaccine against the viral infection is currently being tested and is showing promising results. 

In the meantime, according to the WHO, “anyone visiting farms, markets, barns or other places where camels and other animals are present should practice general hygiene measures, including regular hand washing before and after touching animals, and should avoid contact with sick animals.” 

The WHO also advises that consumption of raw or undercooked animal products, including milk and meat, carries a high risk of infection, however it says that with the correct pasteurisation and cooking, camel milk and meat are still safe to consume.

Healthcare workers providing treatment to those infected with MERS-CoV should be trained in infection prevention measures, and anyone visiting hospitals or clinics should take extra care to avoid close contact with other patients.

When it comes to the Hajj pilgrimage, frequent washing, avoiding the most densely populated areas and wearing a mask over the mouth and nose are all advised. It is also expected that the sacrificing of camels will be banned in an attempt to stop the spread.

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