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MERS: A Q&A with McMaster’s Dr. Karen Mossman

In response to the recent outbreak of MERS in South Korea and parts of the Middle East, countries around the world are increasing their levels of awareness among their people, particularly those working in their health care systems.

Though detailed information on the virus is limited – largely because of its novelty – experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) are confident it has a limited ability to spread throughout affected regions. Despite this, experts warn that it is still premature to declare the outbreak over.

So what exactly is MERS and do we have sufficient reason to be concerned?

What is the MERS virus?

Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) – commonly referred to as MERS – is a type of coronavirus. Human coronaviruses were first identified in the mid-60s, and were named after the crown-like spikes protruding from their surface. These types of viruses can cause diseases ranging from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

MERS-CoV was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

What are the most common symptoms of MERS?

Common symptoms of MERS include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea, have also been reported. Based on what researchers do know, people with compromised immune systems are most susceptible to the virus.

How does MERS spread?

Experts are quick to point out that MERS is not overly contagious. This is because the MERS virus – like most coronaviruses – is considered fragile, meaning once it has left the body it can only survive for approximately one day. This timeframe is shortened considerably once the virus comes into contact with common detergents and/or cleaning agents. How the infection occurs is still not entirely understood. Most cases, however, have been the result of human-to-human contact in a health care setting. Also, similar to the flu virus, MERS can spread through contact with bodily fluids. Good hygiene practices – including frequent hand washing, coughing and sneezing into your arm, and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth – have shown to be effective in reducing the spread of infections and viruses.

Is there a vaccine?

No vaccine or antiviral is currently available. Treatment is limited to controlling associated symptoms.