MERS 101: What You Need to Know About this Novel Disease

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You’re flipping through the channels on your car radio and you hear the tail end of story about something called MERS.  You think you’ve heard the phrase before – it’s got something to do with the Middle East, right?  You’re correct – but there is more you need to know.

Setting the Stage

So, let’s talk about MERS – what it stands for, what kind of disease it is, what we know about the disease, what we still have to learn, and what we recommend at this time to protect yourself.

MERS stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).  It is a viral respiratory illness that was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It is caused by a coronavirus, a common type of virus infecting humans and animals, known as MERS-CoV (the long version is Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Conornavirus).

Since April 2012, there have been over 500 laboratory-confirmed cases of MERS reported to the World Health Organization (WHO).  Countries are reporting their cases and case information (like age and sex) to WHO, and you can find the latest case count here.  All of the cases thus far have been linked to seven countries in the Arabian Peninsula (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen).  This means that either the patient got sick and tested positive in one of those countries, or lives in or visited one of those countries, got sick, and tested positive elsewhere.

Countries With Lab-Confirmed MERS Cases

Countries in or near the Arabian Peninsula with cases:

  • Saudi Arabia
  • United Arab Emirates (UAE)
  • Qatar
  • Oman
  • Jordan
  • Kuwait
  • Yemen
  • Lebanon

Countries with travel-associated cases:

  • United Kingdom
  • France
  • Tunisia
  • Italy
  • Malaysia
  • Turkey
  • Greece
  • Egypt
  • United States of America
  • Netherlands

Currently, we know this virus has spread from ill people to others through close contact, such as caring for or living with an infected person. However, there is no evidence of sustained person-to-person spreading in a community setting. Most people who have been confirmed as having MER-CoV infection have showed signs of severe respiratory illnesses, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath.  More than 30% of those who have been infected have died. 

At this time, we are unsure of the source or host that MERS-CoV comes from. It’s likely an animal host, and while MERS-CoV has been found in camels in Qatar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it has also been found in a bat in Saudi Arabia. Camels in a few other countries have also tested positive for antibodies to MERS-CoV, meaning that they were previously infected with MERS-CoV or a closely related virus. When we and others look at the virus in the lab, the virus infecting humans has similarities to the virus infecting camels.

What’s Happening in the United States

On May 2nd, CDC announced the first imported case of MERS in the US, a health care worker who also traveled from Saudi Arabia to Indiana.  CDC sent a team of experts to Indiana to help assist with the investigation.  The patient from Indiana has since recovered and was released from the hospital. On May 12, CDC confirmed the second imported case of MERS in the U.S. – a health care worker who lives in and traveled from Saudi Arabia to Florida.  CDC and the Florida Department of Health are currently working on a contract tracking – in which we work with the airlines to identify and notify the people who were on the planes that the patient traveled on (the patient traveled from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to London, England to Boston, Massachusetts to Atlanta, Georgia to Orlando, Florida). 

These two cases represent very low risk to the general public.  You can always help protect yourself by washing your hands often, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands, and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.  

At this time, we don’t recommend that you change your travel plans to the Arabian Peninsula.  However, if you are traveling to countries in or near the Arabian Peninsula, we recommend you pay attention to your health during and after your trip. Call a doctor right away if you develop fever and symptoms of respiratory illness and let your doctor know of your recent travel.

CDC continues to closely monitor the MERS situation globally and work with partners to better understand the risks of this virus, including the source, how it spreads, and how infections might be prevented. CDC recognizes the potential for MERS-CoV to spread further and cause more cases globally and in the U.S.  

For the latest information from CDC on MERS, visit the MERS website.

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Page last reviewed: May 16, 2014
Page last updated: May 16, 2014