Dr. Kadile, I’ve been hearing a lot about MERS on the news. Isn’t it like SARS, except from the Middle East instead of China?  – Jake, DHS

Jake, MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) do have some similarities.

MERS is a respiratory disease caused by a virus from the same family (coronavirus) as the common cold and SARS. This virus appears to be circulating throughout the Arabian Peninsula and first appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It is thought to have come from camels. The symptoms of MERS are typically fever, shortness of breath and cough. Pneumonia commonly develops and diarrhea can also be present. The symptoms can become severe, requiring hospitalization. Respiratory failure and organ failure may occur in some patients. Approximately 27% of patients with MERS have died. MERS is more severe in the older population, those with weakened immune systems, cancer diabetes and lung disease. The infection is contagious and it appears to pass from an infected person to another person in close contact.

As of May 19, 2014, there have been three reported cases of MERS in the United States. Two of the cases are from people who had traveled to the Middle East. They did become ill but have since recovered. The third case is a person who had come into contact with one of those travelers but did not become ill.

SARS is a very serious form of pneumonia that is also caused by a virus from the coronovirus family. This disease caused an epidemic in 2003 when it spread from small mammals in China. The symptoms of SARS were cough, difficulty breathing, fever, chills, headache and muscle aches. Diarrhea and nausea/vomiting also occurred. Many of the infected people’s symptoms worsened and required hospitalization and developed heart failure, liver failure and/or respiratory failure. Unlike MERS, where the spread of the disease appears to be from close contact, SARS can be contracted when an individual breathes or touches infected droplets coughed or sneezed from an infected person. SARS might also spread by hands and other objects the droplets have touched. The virus can live on hands, tissues and other surfaces for up to 6 hours. SARS is fatal in 9-12% of people diagnosed, and much higher (50%) in people over the age of 65.
There have been no reported cases of SARS since 2004.

Like the common cold, there is no cure for MERS and SARS. It is unclear if antiviral medication will help. Antibiotics are used for the bacterial pneumonia that may develop and steroids may help decrease the inflammation in the lungs. Supportive treatment may be needed in the hospital such as oxygen, mechanical ventilation and IV hydration.

SARS was a global epidemic in 2003. Time will tell if MERS becomes a worldwide problem.