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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

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MERS FAQ: What You Need to Know

WebMD Health News

Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 28, 2015.

May 5, 2014 -- The deadly respiratory virus known as MERS, first identified in 2012 in the Middle East, has resurfaced in Asia.

In this latest outbreak, more than 180 cases and more than 35 deaths have been reported in South Korea as of July 27, along with one case in China and one in Thailand.

The CDC is urging doctors to consider the MERS virus when seeing sick patients in the U.S. who have traveled recently to South Korea or the Middle East. 

Even so, public health experts say there is no need to panic, as the infection is hard to catch without close contact.

Here are some commonly asked questions:

What is MERS?

Middle East respiratory syndrome is an illness caused by a virus called a coronavirus. It's also sometimes referred to as MERS-CoV, for Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus

It's a close cousin of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus that infected more than 8,000 people worldwide in 2003, killing 774. But MERS doesn't appear to spread as easily as SARS.

Coronaviruses are common globally, the CDC says. Five different types can make people sick. They also infect animals.

Although some coronaviruses cause mild to moderate upper respiratory illness, MERS, like SARS, can cause severe illness and death.

What are the symptoms of MERS?

The most common symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

How common is the illness? Where is it found?

More than 1,200 cases have been confirmed worldwide to date, according to the CDC, with nearly 450 deaths, for a death rate of 37%.

In all, 25 countries have reported cases since 2012, when MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia. In the U.S., two people learned they had MERS in 2014. Both had traveled to areas where there were infections. They both recovered.

How is it treated?

There's no cure for it, but doctors can treat someone's symptoms.

How is the virus spread? How contagious is it?

Experts have more to learn about how MERS spreads, but public health officials say it most often spreads between people who are in close contact. Infected patients, for instance, have spread the virus to health care workers. The virus doesn't appear to spread easily among people in public settings, such as a shopping mall.

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