The Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) caused an outbreak in several countries in the Middle East and in South Korea from 2012 onwards. The virus is still circulating in the Middle East. Since the discovery of the virus in 2012, worldwide 1,800 patients (September 2016) with a laboratory-confirmed infection of MERS-CoV have been reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). Of these patients, 640 have died. In the Netherlands, two travellers returned from Saudi Arabia with MERS-CoV in May 2014. The MERS coronavirus is sometimes compared to the SARS virus; the SARS virus is also a coronavirus, however, MERS-CoV and the SARS virus are two different types of coronaviruses, each with their own characteristics.
Signs of disease
Many coronaviruses can cause respiratory infections in humans and animals. Usually, these are simply symptoms of a cold. The MERS coronavirus is a special type of coronavirus that may present a more serious clinical picture with very severe respiratory symptoms, also referred to as Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). Patients suffer from fever, coughing, shortness of breath and respiratory problems. Due to the seriousness of these symptoms, these people are admitted to hospital. Some patients suffer from diarrhoea. The clinical picture is less serious among healthy and younger people.
How do people get ill?
It is not entirely clear as yet how people contract the virus and much research is now being carried out. The virus is also found among dromedary camels in the Middle East. It is suspected that the virus is mainly transferred from these animals to people. Transfer from human to human is rare and usually occurs in the hospital.
Travellers to the Middle East
The risk of travellers becoming ill is very low. No travel warning has been issued for the Middle East, but travellers should take hygienic measures, however, and avoid contact with sick people, animals (in particular dromedary camels) and animal waste. Eating or drinking raw animal products (such as dromedarie camel milk) is not recommended. Travellers to the Middle East who start coughing, experience shortness of breath, and fever or diarrhoea during their journey, or within two weeks after it, are advised to contact their GP. The usual travel recommendations for hygiene and for the Middle East can be found on the LCR website.
Because the MERS coronavirus was discovered a relatively short time ago, there is limited information as to how the virus is spread. The government focuses on tracking all possible patients with the MERS coronavirus in the Netherlands as soon as possible to prevent any further spread of the virus. The MERS coronavirus has thus been included as a notifiable disease in group A for care providers in the hospital, meaning that a specialist in the hospital is obliged to immediately report a patient who is suspected of being contaminated with the MERS coronavirus to the Municipal Health Service.