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Should I worry about Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV, camel flu)?

The viral infection Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) has a high mortality rate: it kills 35% of patients. Some cases appear to have been contracted from camels. Most cases have occurred in Saudi Arabia.

What is MERS-CoV?

Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus first appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2012. The virus infects the patient’s lungs and airways, causing respiratory disease. It is zoonotic, and dromedary camels are thought to be a reservoir host.

Is MERS-CoV dangerous?

Since more than a third of people who contract MERS-CoV die, it is a cause for concern. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that it ‘does not seem to pass easily from person-to-person’ although most cases have been contracted from another patient – usually after close contact.

Where does Middle East respiratory syndrome occur?

Most cases (85%) of MERS-CoV cases occur in Saudi Arabia, but cases have occurred in other countries in the Middle East, including:

  • Egypt
  • Iran
  • Jordan
  • Kuwait
  • Lebanon
  • Oman
  • Qatar
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Yemen

Cases recorded outside the Middle East have all been linked to travel in the region.

What are the symptoms of MERS?

The symptoms of Middle East respiratory syndrome are:

  • cough
  • fever
  • shortness of breath

Pneumonia may also occur, and gastro-intestinal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea are reported, too.

MERS-CoV sometimes develops into a more severe form that causes respiratory failure. Certain groups of patients are at greater risk of this. This group includes:

  • older people
  • those with damaged immune systems
  • people with underlying health problems

Some people get infected by the virus but have no symptoms. These cases have been picked up by laboratory testing of people who have had contact with a patient.

What should I do if I think I have MERS?

If you think you have MERS, get medical help. Give a full travel history if you have returned to Canada. Here is the Government of Canada’s recommendation on MERS-CoV.

How can I avoid Middle East respiratory syndrome?

There is no vaccine to protect you from MERS.

The way MERS moves from camels to humans is not at all well understood and caution is strongly recommended around camels. If at all possible, you should avoid activities that bring you into close contact with camels. And if you visit a camel barn, farm or market, pay special attention to hygiene. Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently during your visit and afterwards. Sick animals may pose a greater risk, so stay well away.

There may be a risk of infection from drinking raw camel milk or urine and from eating camel meat that has not been thoroughly cooked. Cooked foods cross-contaminated by raw meat or milk could be a source of infection, so take normal food safety precautions. Pasteurized milk is considered safe, but the jury is out on camel urine, which is drunk by some for medicinal purposes.

You should also avoid contact with people who are suffering from respiratory infections.