MERS is a severe respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus. It mainly affects those who live in or travel to the Arabian peninsula. Though it has similar symptoms to COVID-19, MERS is not as contagious. Since it was first seen in 2012, fewer than 2,600 cases have been reported. About 35% of people diagnosed with MERS have died.
Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is a severe respiratory illness caused by a type of coronavirus. It was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012.
Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that usually infect birds and mammals. Sometimes these viruses change and spread to humans.
Scientists first described coronaviruses in the mid-1960s. Since then, they have identified seven strains of coronavirus that make humans sick. Four strains cause only mild or moderate cold-like symptoms.
Three coronavirus strains cause more serious illness:
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
As of January 2020, the World Health Organization has recorded 2,519 cases of MERS since it emerged in 2012. A total of 27 countries have reported cases, of which 80% have occurred in Saudi Arabia. All cases have been linked to travel or residence to countries in or around the Arabian peninsula such as Iraq, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
The U.S. has seen only two cases of MERS. Both were healthcare workers who had recently returned from Saudi Arabia.
People are at risk of MERS if they:
MERS is contagious. However, it does not spread quickly, unlike COVID-19, which spread rapidly around the world. MERS transmission requires close contact, such as between family members or in a healthcare setting. Health officials have not observed community-wide spread of MERS.
You can also get MERS from camels. In Saudi Arabia and surrounding countries, camels have strains of MERS that match human strains. This suggests active transmission of MERS from camels to people.
A person with MERS may have no symptoms, mild cold-like symptoms or a severe life-threatening illness. Typically, people with MERS develop respiratory symptoms that include:
About 35% of people with MERS have died. However, the actual percentage may be lower because it does not include mild cases that go undiagnosed and unreported.
Those most likely to develop severe disease have underlying health conditions that weaken the immune system, such as:
If you have respiratory symptoms, your healthcare provider will ask you about your medical history. Let your provider know if you traveled recently or had contact with sick people or camels.
Laboratory tests can determine if you have active MERS or a previous MERS infection. Your provider may collect several samples for laboratory testing, including:
Not all laboratories are approved to do MERS-CoV testing. Your provider may send the samples to your state health department laboratory or to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Currently, there is no approved treatment for MERS. Your medical care will focus on managing your symptoms while your body fights the infection.
If you have mild symptoms, you can remain at home and take medications to relieve pain and fever. More severe cases may require hospital care, including:
If you know or think you may have MERS, take steps to prevent infecting others:
If you're feeling better, talk to your healthcare provider about when you can resume your normal activities. Your state or local health department can also give you guidance on how long you need to stay home to prevent spreading MERS to others.
There is no vaccine for MERS. Steps for preventing MERS are similar to those for preventing all respiratory illnesses:
To prevent getting MERS from camels:
If you are living with or caring for a person with MERS, health officials recommend additional precautions:
You are unlikely to contract MERS unless you travel to the Arabian peninsula or come into close contact with someone who has recently traveled there and has symptoms.
If you do get MERS, you have a high risk of developing severe disease, especially if you have existing health conditions. Your healthcare provider will monitor you closely and provide supportive care to manage your symptoms.
You should call your provider if you have symptoms of MERS and think you were exposed to MERS-CoV. Exposure may include direct contact with someone with MERS or if you or a close contact recently traveled to the Arabian Peninsula.
MERS symptoms can become quite severe and life-threatening. Contact your provider immediately if your symptoms are getting worse.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
MERS is a rare disease but not easily transmitted from person to person. If you plan to travel to the Arabian Peninsula, practice basic hygiene to prevent MERS. Wash your hands often, do not touch your face and be careful around camels. If you suspect MERS, call your healthcare provider immediately. They can offer testing and guidance for managing your condition and preventing the spread of MERS to those around you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/23/2022.
Learn more about our editorial process.