Should I worry about catching Mers?

With no antiviral drugs or vaccines to treat it, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) has been called a "killer bug" with good reason. In Saudi Arabia, where at least 414 people have been infected, 115 have died as of last Monday – some of them health workers who caught it from patients.

Public health officials have issued warnings about wider dissemination of the virus during times of pilgrimage. Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman have all had people arriving with Mers and, last week, America joined the list when a man travelled by plane from Saudi Arabia, through London, to visit family near Chicago before he became ill (he is recovering).

Public Health England is known to have contacted UK passengers sitting three rows in front or behind the affected man. The period between exposure to the virus and developing symptoms (cough, fever, shortness of breath) is 14 days – which is a long time to wait. So would it be better to avoid going abroad this year – or should we stop being paranoid and realise the risk of getting infected wherever you are in the world is small?


Mers is a new type of coronavirus, a family of viral infections that causes common colds as well as Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome). Mers causes respiratory infections that lead to pneumonia and, potentially, kidney failure. The virus can be passed through close contact between people but is not spread easily – otherwise more people would be infected. Also Mers isn't a robust virus and can be killed by household disinfectants. It can be diagnosed by a laboratory test.

There is growing evidence that the virus hangs on in camels in the Middle East. A case report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked the Mers infection of a 43-year-old man in Jeddah with sick camels he had been looking after for three weeks. Public Health England advises travellers to the Middle East to avoid "unnecessary contact with camels", including raw camel meat or raw camel milk. To avoid the spread of infections between humans, you should wash hands regularly with soap and fully dry them, and should not touch your eyes, nose or mouth. You should use disposable tissues when coughing or sneezing.

The Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia recommends that those over 65 or with chronic diseases, pregnant women, and children under 12 postpone any pilgrimages while the number of people infected with Mers is rising. But the risk is small, and it seems a new coronavirus emerges every couple of years. If you worry too much, you would never go anywhere.

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