Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) - including symptoms, treatment and prevention

Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) was first recognised in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It is caused by infection with Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). It was formerly called ‘novel coronavirus’. Initially it was confined to travellers in the Middle East, or contacts of travellers to the Middle East, however in 2015, there was a health care associated outbreak in the Republic of Korea resulting in 185 secondary and tertiary cases and 36 deaths. For up to date information on MERS-CoV see:

Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) is a notifiable condition1

How MERS is spread

There is strong evidence to suggest that camels serve as a reservoir for the virus and that infection in humans can be acquired from contact with camels and camel products. MERS-CoV does not appear to be present in Australian camels. MERS-CoV can also spread from person to person through close contact, including household contact, and within healthcare settings. Transiting through an international airport (less than 24 hours stay and remaining within the airport) in the Middle East* is currently not considered to be a risk factor for infection. Spread of MERS in the Republic of Korea has occurred only within health care settings. No community spread of MERS-CoV infection has been reported in the Republic of Korea.

* Countries of the Middle East include: Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemen.

Signs and symptoms of MERS

MERS-CoV mainly causes a respiratory infection, which can range from mild illness, to severe pneumonia. Older persons and those with diabetes or immunosuppression are at higher risk of severe illness. Symptoms of MERS may include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • breathing difficulties
  • muscles aches
  • diarrhoea
  • nausea and vomiting.

About 30% of reported confirmed cases, have died. However some people, particularly those infected in healthcare settings, have only mild influenza-like symptoms or no symptoms at all.

Diagnosis of MERS

Diagnosis is made in a pathology laboratory from a respiratory sample (such as sputum, nose or throat swab).

Incubation period

(time between becoming infected and developing symptoms)

Between 2 to 14 days, most commonly 5 days

Infectious period

(time during which an infected person can infect others)

The infectious period is unknown, but is unlikely to start until symptoms are present.

Treatment for MERS

There is no specific treatment for MERS.

Prevention of MERS

Travellers should consult their doctor before travelling overseas to affected areas.

You can protect yourself from MERS while living or travelling in affected areas by:

  • avoiding close contact with camels
  • washing hands regularly and taking particular care when visiting places where animals are present
  • avoiding close contact with people who are unwell
  • avoiding consuming raw, undercooked or unpasteurised camel products, including meat, urine and milk

There is no vaccine available to prevent MERS.

Useful links

1 – In South Australia the law requires doctors and laboratories to report some infections or diseases to SA Health. These infections or diseases are commonly referred to as 'notifiable conditions'.