5 things you need to know about the MERS virus

This weekend the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the first known case of the MERS virus transmitted within the United States. How worried should we be? Here are five important things to know about Middle East Respiratory Virus, including your chances of contracting it.

1. What is MERS?

MERS is a viral respiratory illness first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Most people affected develop fever, cough and shortness of breath, and the symptoms often turn severe. The World Health Organization estimates that 30% of infections prove fatal.

2. Is MERS contagious?

This virus has spread through close contact, such as caring for or living with an infected individual. There is no evidence of sustained contagion in community settings, which basically means if your neighbor has it, you probably won't get it.

3. Could my neighbor be infected? Where are the worldwide MERS cases?

The countries with confirmed cases of MERS are largely in the Arabian Peninsula:

Saudi Arabia
United Arab Emirates (UAE)

The countries with travel-associated cases are:


The most recent case in the U.S. was identified in an Illinois man who was infected after "extended face-to-face contact during a 40-minute business meeting with an Indiana man who was diagnosed with MERS after traveling from Saudi Arabia," according to the CDC. The Illinois man is fine.

4. What are some stats I should know?

Total cases of infection worldwide: 597
Number of infections in Saudi Arabia: 571
Total deaths: 181
Deaths in Saudi Arabia: 171

It's worth noting that the death toll is far lower than the 800 deaths caused by SARS, which originated in China in 2002.

5. How can I protect myself?

There is currently no vaccine for MERS, but treatment and prevention can lower your risk. Be extra vigilant if traveling to the Middle East. To protect against respiratory infection in general, the CDC recommends everyday preventive actions:
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, and help young children do the same. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze then throw the tissue in the trash.

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

  • Avoid close contact, such as kissing, sharing cups, or sharing eating utensils, with sick people.

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs.

Staying vigilant and practicing basic hygiene will reduce your risk of many infections. MERS is not a looming threat at the moment, but it always pays to stay informed.
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