The Facts

MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is a severe pneumonia-like respiratory disease caused by a virus. It is different from SARS because MERS is caused by another subtype of the coronovirus.

Pneumonia is a general term for an inflammation of the air sacs of the lungs caused by an infection or chemical. With pneumonia, the lungs fill with fluid, which interferes with their ability to transfer oxygen to the blood. MERS is known as an atypical pneumonia because it is not caused by the usual bacteria or viruses.

MERS causes high fever, cough, and severe shortness of breath. The infection is thought to be spread by close contact with an infected person.


A virus called coronavirus is the cause of MERS. There are many kinds of coronavirus, some of which cause the common cold. The MERS coronavirus (MERS-CoV) was a new variant that was discovered in 2012 in the Middle East region.

How MERS spreads is not completely understood, but experts believe that the main way it spreads is through close contact with an infected person (by caring for or living with the person, or having direct contact with their respiratory secretions and body fluids). The people who have been infected by MERS have all been in a health care facility or among close family members.

MERS is different from SARS. Most importantly, the MERS virus does not appear to be as easily spread between people, whereas the SARS virus spreads very easily.

Symptoms and Complications

The main symptoms of MERS are:

  • cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
  • diarrhea
  • high fever (over 38°C or 100.4°F)

Some people also develop kidney failure.

People with existing medical conditions (e.g., heart problems, diabetes) are more likely to be affected more seriously with the infection. Many of the fatal MERS infections have been in patients who had a history of other medical conditions.

Making the Diagnosis

See your doctor if you develop a fever, coughing, or shortness of breath within 14 days of travelling to a country in or near the Middle East (such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates).

Your doctor will ask you about your travel history, especially to any Middle Eastern countries, and whether you may have come in contact with someone who has MERS.

If your doctor suspects you may have MERS, he or she may recommend that you go straight to a hospital. The hospital will take appropriate precautions to prevent the infection from spreading to others.

To diagnose MERS, a doctor will perform a physical examination and check for fever and swollen glands. He or she will also listen to your lungs with a stethoscope. Buildup of fluid in the lungs can be seen with a chest X-ray, CT scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. The doctor will send a sample of your sputum (phlegm) to a laboratory to confirm the diagnosis by identifying the exact strain of virus that may be causing your symptoms.

Treatment and Prevention

There are currently no vaccines available for MERS. Medical care is provided to support and relieve the signs and symptoms of MERS. However, there are no treatments available to cure the infection.

There are precautions that you can take to protect yourself against infections. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and help your children to do the same. If no soap is available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands, as they are common ways for a virus to enter your body. You should also avoid close contact (e.g., sharing cups or utensils) with those who are sick. Make sure to frequently disinfect common surfaces such as door knobs and tables with an antibacterial cleanser.