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MERS FAQ: What You Need to Know

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WebMD Health News

Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 28, 2014.

May 5, 2014 -- The deadly respiratory virus known as MERS is now in the U.S. The virus, which first surfaced in Saudi Arabia in 2012, has mostly been found in the Middle East. It is a close cousin of the deadly SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus that infected more than 8,000 people worldwide in 2003, killing 774.

MERS does not appear to spread as easily as SARS from person to person. Here are answers to the most frequently asked questions about MERS.

What is MERS?

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

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 fevercough, and shortness of breath.

How common is MERS?

To date, 636 cases have been confirmed in 18 countries, according to the most recent figures from the World Health Organization and the CDC. Of those, 193 people have died.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for MERS, but doctors can treat a patient's symptoms.

How is MERS spread? How contagious is it?

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 does not appear to spread easily among people in public settings, such as a shopping mall.

CDC Director Tom Frieden says, “The risk to the general public is extremely low.”

Where has MERS been found?

In addition to Saudi Arabia, MERS has been reported in these countries, according to the WHO and CDC:

Middle East:

  • United Arab Emirates
  • Qatar
  • Oman
  • Jordan
  • Kuwait
  • Yemen
  • Lebanon

Africa:

  • Egypt
  • Tunisia

Europe:

  • United Kingdom
  • France
  • Greece
  • Italy
  • Netherlands

Asia:

  • Malaysia
  • Philippines

North America:

  • U.S.

Where did this virus come from?

Public health officials believe it came from an animal but are still doing research. The virus has been found in camels in Qatar, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. It has also been found in a bat in Saudi Arabia. Officials can't say for sure if camels or bats are sources of the virus. For now, they say that camels, bats, and other animals may play a role in where the virus comes from and how it spreads.  

Is there a vaccine?

No vaccine is available.

Is anyone more susceptible to the virus?

The virus is more dangerous for people with pre-existing conditions or problems with their immune systems.

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