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Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)

British Columbia Specific Information

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) is a rare virus that causes flu-like or pneumonia-like symptoms. MERS can be very serious and can even cause death. Those at higher risk include people with underlying medical conditions and weakened immune systems. So far, MERS-CoV has primarily caused illness in the Middle East. At this point, no cases of MERS-CoV have been reported in Canada.

To learn more about MERS-CoV and to access additional MERS-CoV-related information from the Ministry of Health, BC Centre for Disease Control, and your health authority, see our Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) health feature.

Topic Contents

Condition Basics

What is Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)?

Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is an illness that was first found in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread to other countries. It's caused by a type of coronavirus that can cause a moderate to severe upper respiratory illness such as the common cold. MERS can sometimes cause more serious lung problems like pneumonia.

Experts believe MERS may have first developed in animals, because the virus has been found in camels and bats. Some people have become ill with MERS after being around infected camels.

How is it spread?

Like most respiratory illnesses, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is spread mainly through contact with infected saliva or droplets from coughing. In general, you need to have close contact to become infected. Close contact includes living with or caring for a person who has MERS or breathing in air that an infected person breathed out.

Older adults and people who have a long-term health condition, such as lung disease, are most at risk for getting MERS and for having a severe case.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) are a fever, a dry cough, shortness of breath, or trouble breathing. MERS may also cause a headache, muscle aches, a sore throat, fatigue, and diarrhea. For some people the symptoms get worse quickly, so they may need to stay in the hospital.

The incubation period-the time from when a person is first exposed to MERS until symptoms appear-is usually 5 to 6 days, but it may be as long as 14 days.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor may suspect Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) if you have a fever and you either have travelled to a MERS-affected area or have in the past 14 days been around a person who has MERS.

Your doctor may order several tests to find out the cause of your symptoms. A blood sample, saliva sample, or nasal swab may be used to look for bacteria or viruses.

How is Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) treated?

Severe cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) often require a hospital stay, especially if breathing problems develop. You will be placed in isolation to prevent passing the disease to others.

Treatment will focus on relieving symptoms, and it may include medicines and treatments to make it easier to breathe.

MERS can be very serious. The risk of dying from the illness depends on a person's age and health. The greatest risk is to people who are older than 65 and those who have chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or heart disease.

How can you help prevent it?

The best way to prevent getting or spreading Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is to:

  • Avoid areas where there is an outbreak.
  • Avoid contact with sick animals.
  • Avoid contact with people who may be infected.
  • Wash your hands often with soap or alcohol hand cleaners.
  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.

Where can you find the latest information?

The following health organizations are tracking and studying Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Their websites contain the most up-to-date information, including advice for travellers.


Current as of: October 31, 2022

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Leslie Tengelsen PhD, DVM - Zoonotic Disease