Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus

Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) is a virus that has spread to humans from animals. It is a type of Coronavirus (a family of viruses that can cause respiratory infections, including the common cold). MERS-CoV was first recognised in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and although its origins are not fully understood, it is believed to have originated in bats and then spread to camels.

Symptoms include fever and cough, which may lead to severe pneumonia, causing shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In some cases, diarrhoea is the first symptom. The virus appears to cause more severe illness in older people, those with weakened immune systems and anyone with conditions such as cancer, chronic lung problems, diabetes and kidney disease.

Although many human MERS-CoV cases have been linked to human-to-human infections in healthcare settings, current scientific evidence suggests that dromedary camels are a major host for MERS-CoV and a source of infection in humans. However, the exact role of camels in spreading MERS-CoV is not clear.

As of June 2017, the risk of with MERS-CoV infection to UK residents in the UK is very low. The risk of infection with MERS-CoV to UK residents travelling to the Middle East is very low, but may be higher in those with exposure to specific risk factors within the region. This includes contact with camels or camel products and/or use of the local health care system.

Prevention

All travellers, particularly those with chronic medical conditions, should practise good general health measures, such as regular hand washing with soap and water at all times, but especially after visiting farms, barns or market areas in the Middle East.

Travellers should also:

  • avoid contact with camels and sick animals
  • avoid raw camel milk and/or camel products
  • avoid consumption of any type of raw milk, raw milk products and any food that may be contaminated with animal secretions, unless peeled and cleaned and/or thoroughly cooked

Pilgrims planning to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to for Hajj or Umra should read our factsheet for updated information.

There is currently no preventive vaccine or specific treatment for MERS-CoV. Care is supportive and based on the patient’s condition.

UK travellers returning from the Middle East with mild respiratory (breathing) symptoms are most likely to have a common respiratory illness, like a cold. However, travellers with more severe respiratory symptoms should seek medical advice from their GP or NHS111. It is important that returning travellers give details of any recent travel history to the health professional, so that appropriate measures and testing can be carried out.

More detailed information on MERS-CoV can be found on the Public Health England website.  

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