What Is MERS?

The Respiratory Illness You Should Be Paying Attention to But Aren't

Should you be concerned about MERS virus?. Judith Haeusler/Stone/Getty Images

What It Is:

MERS stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. It is a respiratory illness that is caused by a previously unseen variant of a coronavirus and was first detected in Saudi Arabia in 2012. According to public health officials, it is most similar to a strain of coronavirus previously found in bats. Although it is not the same as the SARS virus that circulated in 2003, that virus was also caused by a coronavirus variant that was previously found only in bats.

MERS may also be listed as MERS-CoV, with The "CoV" representing coronavirus.

Coronaviruses are one of several types of viruses that cause colds and other respiratory infections.


MERS is a respiratory illness and symptoms can be severe. They may include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

Like many respiratory illnesses, people that have chronic health problems or suppressed immune systems may be at higher risk for infection and/or death from the virus.

Because these symptoms are so similar to those of many other respiratory illnesses such as the common cold and influenza, be sure to talk to your health care provider if you have traveled in a part of the world where MERS has been found and you experience these symptoms.


The CDC and WHO have not issued any official warnings about traveling to affected areas. However, if you have traveled to an area where MERS has been found (specifically the Middle East or Arabian Peninsula) and you experience symptoms of a respiratory illness within 14 days of your trip, seek medical attention and be sure to tell your health care provider about your travel.

If you travel to one of these areas, be sure to use common sense tips to avoid getting sick.

  • Wash Your Hands
  • Use Alcohol Based Hand Sanitizer if You Can't Wash Your Hands
  • Avoid People Who Are Sick
  • Avoid Touching Your Eyes, Nose and Mouth
  • Be Sure You Are Up to Date With Your Vaccines - check with your health care provider 4-6 weeks prior to travel to see if you need any additional vaccines

    If you get sick:


    There is currently no treatment for MERS. Because it is a virus, antibiotics are ineffective and at this point doctors are only able to try to treat the symptoms.

    Many people that have been diagnosed with MERS have had very severe symptoms and over a quarter have died.

    Researchers are working on trying to identify treatments for the virus and reduce the fatality rate.

    Other Concerns:

    The CDC and WHO are working on developing treatments and a vaccine for MERS but there is much work to do. Researchers still don't know much about the virus other than the fact that it is severe and it does appear to be spreading from person to person. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "Although the majority of human cases of MERS have been attributed to human-to-human infections, camels are likely to be a major reservoir host for MERS-CoV and an animal source of MERS infection in humans. However, the exact role of camels in transmission of the virus and the exact route(s) of transmission are unknown."

    The CDC has developed a testing kit that they have distributed to state health departments. If cases of MERS are suspected in the US, these testing kits can help public health officials with diagnosis and further testing can be done by the CDC.

    The CDC and WHO continue to try to learn more about the virus and monitor the situation as it changes.


    Overview of MERS Coronavirus 14 Jun 13. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. 24 Jun 13.

    A Novel Coronavirus Called "MERS-CoV" in the Arabian Peninsula Traveler's Health 11 Jun 13. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. 24 Jun 13.

    Update: Severe Respiratory Illness Associated with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) — Worldwide, 2012–2013. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 14 Jun 13. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. 28 Jun 13.

    "Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV)". Fact Sheet N401. May 2015. World Health Organization. 4 Jun 15. 

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