The toll continues to rise in South Korea from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, MERS, a viral respiratory illness that originated on the Arabian Peninsula.
In South Korea alone, there have been 186 confirmed cases of MERS and 34 deaths since May. While officials believe the outbreak has peaked, more cases are expected.
There is no cure for the highly contagious virus, and while this year no cases have been reported in the United States, it’s important to understand how the disease is transmitted – and what to know if you travel internationally.
What is MERS?
MERS is a relatively new strain of coronavirus, a viral respiratory illness that attacks the infected person’s respiratory system. The virus is in the same family as the common cold, although it is much more severe.
Since its discovery in Saudi Arabia in 2012, MERS has spread to 26 countries, infected more than 800 people and claimed more than 400 lives.
“Since the virus is still new to humans, it has not had the chance to adapt – meaning that people get sicker quicker,” said Dr. Michael Blocker, an infectious disease specialist at Novant Health. “Other viruses, such as the flu, have adapted over time to be less severe and not kill everyone it infects.”
Where did it come from?
Although the source of the virus is still unknown, the most widely supported theory is that it originated in camels.
“The exact same virus (MERS) that was found in the first person who became sick after taking care of camels was found in at least one of the camels,” Blocker said. In fact, nearly three-quarters of camels in Saudi Arabia have tested positive for MERS exposure.
How did MERS get to South Korea?
A 68-year-old man brought the virus to South Korea when he returned from a trip to the Middle East in late May. The man sought care at multiple hospitals before receiving a proper diagnosis: MERS. During his time spent in the various hospitals, the virus spread to those whom he was in close contact with. The Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, South Korea, is viewed internationally as the epicenter of the outbreak, with every confirmed case being linked back to a hospital.
How is MERS spread and contracted?
Like other coronaviruses, Blocker said “it spreads through respiratory droplets, primarily from coughing or sneezing or somebody.” However, MERS does not spread easily between humans. Unless you are in close contact – primarily living with or caring for – an infected person, you are not considered to be at risk for MERS.
It is important to note that pre-existing medical conditions or a weakened immune system may make an individual more susceptible to contracting the virus or having a severe case.
What is the fatality rate?
According to the CDC, approximately three to four people out of every 10 patients infected with MERS have died. Most of those who died had a pre-existing health condition.
“The majority of those who have died tend to either be older or have underlying kidney or lung disease,” Blocker said. “Those people are already sick from other things, and then they get a virus that worsens their condition.”
What are the symptoms?
“Respiratory symptoms are predominate,” Blocker said. “Studies done in Saudi Arabia showed that 98 percent of people had a fever, 83 percent had a cough and 72 percent experienced shortness of breath.”
MERS acts like any other coronavirus and attacks the respiratory system, causing severe symptoms. Some patients will experience additional symptoms of diarrhea, nausea and vomiting – The incubation period for the virus is anywhere from nine to 12 days.
How is MERS prevented and treated?
There is currently no vaccine to protect against MERS and no specific antiviral treatment. An infected individual may seek medical care to help relieve the symptoms. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises the public to follow basic hygiene procedures, such as proper hand-washing, sneezing and coughing into a disposable tissue and sanitizing germy surfaces, to help protect against illness.
Blocker added, “If you’re abroad, don’t go near camels!”
I live in the United States. Should I be worried about MERS?
According to Blocker, the answer is no. “At this point, the containment is pretty good,” he said. “It’s not spread so efficiently person to person that it’s likely to come here.”
There have only ever been two confirmed cases of MERS in the United States, both of which occurred in May 2014 after the individuals traveled to Saudi Arabia.
“At this point in time there’s no risk in the United States,” Blocker said. “Your risk of MERS is effectively zero if you haven’t been traveling or in close contact with an infected person.”