MERS is a serious disease that is caused by a coronavirus. It was first identified in 2012. MERS can cause severe disease and death in some people. Most severe cases and deaths have occurred in people with underlying illnesses that may make them more likely to get respiratory infections.
Other coronaviruses that are like the virus that causes MERS cause the common cold and SARS. All people who have had MERS have had a history of living in or travel to the Middle East (mostly Saudi Arabia), contact with travellers returning from these areas, or can be linked to an imported case.
There have been no people with MERS in Australia.
- MERS symptoms often include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Pneumonia is common, but not always present.
- Other symptoms include muscle pain, diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea.
- Some people who have been infected with the virus have mild or no symptoms. These are usually people who have been tested because they were close contacts of seriously ill cases.
- Approximately 35% of reported patients with MERS have died.
How it spreads
- MERS is a zoonotic disease, which means it can spread from animals to people. MERS gets into human populations from dromedary camels. Exactly how it spreads from camels to people is not well understood.
- Scientific evidence suggests that MERS coronavirus is not present in Australian camels.
- There can also be limited spread between people in some circumstances. Clusters due to person-to-person spread have been observed in health-care facilities, among family members and between co-workers.
- The virus appears to spread from an infected person to another person in close contact, but exactly how it spreads is not well understood. The virus does not seem to pass easily from person to person unless there is close contact, for example, when providing unprotected care to a patient.
People at risk
People living in or travelling to the Middle East or other affected areas or who have had contact with other people with MERS may be at risk of being infected.
People with underlying illnesses that make them more vulnerable to respiratory disease may be at a higher risk. These people should consult their health care provider before travelling to discuss the risks.
Regular handwashing can help stop MERS from spreading. Use a hand sanitiser if soap and water is not available. Travellers should wash their hands often, including before eating, after using the toilet and after touching animals.
You should avoid close contact with people who are unwell while living or travelling in the Middle East. If you are around someone who is unwell you should wash your hands often and avoid touching your face. Ask the person to cough or sneeze into their elbow or tissue.
As a general precaution, anyone visiting farms, markets, barns, or other places where animals are present should practise general hygiene measures. These include regular hand-washing and avoiding contact with sick animals.
All travellers should avoid consuming raw, undercooked or unpasteurised camel products, including meat, urine and milk.
People with diabetes, renal failure, chronic lung disease, and immunocompromised persons are considered to be at high risk of severe disease from MERS infection. Especially in the Middle East, this group of people should avoid contact with dromedary camels and also follow the precautions for all travellers. Travellers should wash their hands often, before eating, and after touching animals.
There is no vaccine nor are there any effective antiviral medicines for MERS however travellers should be up-to-date with all recommended vaccinations before travel. The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health also has a number of vaccination requirements for Umrah and Hajj pilgrims which can be found in the "Health Requirements and Recommendations for Travellers to Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah" on the WHO website.
Anyone travelling to affected areas to work or volunteer in a healthcare setting should seek advice and ensure they are fully informed about infection control procedures and recommendations.
How it is diagnosed
MERS is diagnosed from a test on swabs from the back of the throat or fluid from the lungs. Testing for MERS is only done in special laboratories.
How it is treated
At the moment there is no specific treatment for MERS but early medical care can save lives.
How health authorities will prevent its spread in Australia
The World Health Organization (WHO) is working with countries that have had people with MERS to try and stop it spreading and to find out more about the disease.
There have been no people with MERS in Australia. Doctors and hospitals in Australia are ready to look after a person with MERS.
Ways to stop MERS spreading include:
- Asking a sick person to wear a mask over their mouth and be in a room by themselves.
- Laboratory and healthcare workers seeing patients or handling specimens following special safety guidelines.
- Health departments being told that there is a person with MERS.
- Health departments following up people who have been in close contact with that person so they can be given information and be tested if necessary.
What should a person do if they become unwell
If you become unwell whilst travelling in the Middle East, you should not wait until you arrive back in Australia to seek medical assistance. See a doctor or go the local hospital's emergency department.
If you have returned from the Middle East recently or have had contact with someone who may have had MERS and get a fever, cough, shortness of breath or are worried, you should see your doctor or go to the emergency department. It is important that you tell the receptionist or nurse that you have visited the Middle East or have had contact with someone who may have had MERS when you arrive.
You may be asked to wear a mask over your mouth and be placed in a separate room by yourself to stop others from becoming unwell.
World Health Organization Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus updates available from the WHO website: (www.who.int/csr/disease/coronavirus_infections/en/)
Department of Health website (health.gov.au/MERS-coronavirus)
A MERS information card has been produced to assist travellers before and after travel. The card can be downloaded from the Department of Health website. Copies are available in multiple languages by emailing Human Biosecurity (email@example.com).