Health

Mers: The mystery virus with no known cure

  • 6 May 2014
  • From the section Health
Coronavirus Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Coronaviruses include Sars, the common cold and Mers

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome is a viral respiratory illness. Since first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012, there have been scores of cases around the world.

Should we be worried?

Mers is a type of coronavirus. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, which includes the common cold and Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome). The new virus is not Sars.

Saudi Arabia says more than 100 people infected with Mers have died since an outbreak began in 2012.

Cases have also been confirmed in Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia, Egypt, the UK and, most recently, the US.

How dangerous is it?

Image copyright anaelb.com/BSIP/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Experts believe the virus is not very contagious. If it were, we would have seen more cases. But around a third of those infected have died.

Coronaviruses are fairly fragile. Outside of the body they can only survive for a day and are easily destroyed by usual detergents and cleaning agents.

Public health experts in the UK have stressed that the risk to general population remains very low.

The greatest global concern, however, is about the potential for this new virus to spread far and wide. So far, person-to-person transmission has remained limited to some small clusters. There is no evidence yet that the virus has the capacity to become pandemic.

How is it spread?

Image copyright PHOTOSTOCK-ISRAEL/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Image caption Camels may spread the infection

Mers has been shown to spread between people who are in close contact, most probably through droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Transmission from infected patients to healthcare personnel has also been observed.

Although camels are suspected to be the primary source of infection for humans, the exact routes of direct or indirect exposure remain unknown.

Can it be treated?

Image copyright PASIEKA/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Doctors do not yet know what the best treatment is, but people with severe symptoms will need intensive medical care to help them breath. There is no vaccine to prevent it.

Where did it come from?

Experts do not yet know where the virus originated from. It may have been the result of a new mutation of an existing virus. Or it may be an infection that has been circulating in animals and has now made the jump to humans.

Is there any travel advice?

Image copyright TON KINSBERGEN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

At the moment the WHO says there is no reason to impose any travel restrictions. Travel advice will be kept under review if additional cases occur or when the patterns of transmission become clearer. WHO says it is very likely that cases will continue to be exported to other countries, through tourists and travellers.

What are the symptoms?

Image copyright SPL

Most people who got infected with MERS-CoV developed severe acute respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

How can I protect myself?

As with any respiratory infection, the best way to prevent it is to follow good hygiene advice:

•Wash your hands with soap and water

•Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and dispose of it in a bin

•Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands

•Avoid close contact (kissing or sharing a mug, for example) with people who are sick

•Clean and disinfect surfaces that may be contaminated (door handles, phones etc)