MERS: What is it, what are the symptoms and how do you catch it?

South Korea confirmed two deaths from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) last week after 25 cases were reported since May 20.

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More than 680 people have been put into quarantine in South Korea in a bid to stop the virus from spreading.

Experts presume the virus originated from camels, prompting the World Health Organisation (WHO) to warn against contact with the animals and to avoid raw and undercooked camel milk and meat.

China quarantined 64 people after the son of a South Korean MERS patient ignored doctors’ orders and flew from Seoul to Hong Kong, then travelled by bus to the southern city of Huizhou.

With more than 1,000 cases of MERS reported worldwide, SBS spoke to Gary Crameri, a research scientist at CSIRO, to find out more about the virus.

What is MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome?

It is actually a coronavirus so it’s a virus similar to SARS that emerged out of China in 2003 and caused a huge global outbreak. This virus is similar to SARS but unlike SARS it’s not as transmissible between people so it hasn’t caused the same global outbreak that SARS did at that time.

What are the symptoms of the virus?

It’s a respiratory disease so it’s not unlike severe flu, but it does cause mortality in over 40 per cent of the people who are infected, so it’s a very severe disease.

How do you catch the MERS virus and is it contagious?

It’s certainly contagious. It’s not as contagious as SARS was, thankfully, so that’s meant that we haven’t had the rapid spread. But it certainly will spread from person to person, probably via contact with respiratory secretions, so it requires very close contact, whereas SARS was spread quite easily so this is not quite as contagious as SARS was.

What can people do to prevent catching MERS?

It’s very much still a disease out of the Middle East, mainly out of Saudi Arabia. So for people who are not there it certainly doesn’t pose any threat at all. People who go to those countries, there’s a lot of warnings about the potential areas where it could come from. Camels appear to be a source of the virus. Really, just taking general health precautions in those countries will protect people.

Australia has an estimated feral camel population of about 300,000. Does that make Australia at risk of the virus?

We’re actually doing work at the moment to determine whether Australian camels are infected with the virus. They certainly have the potential to be – they’re the same species of camels that are through the Middle East. But look, any of the countries that have camels need to take precautions.

The MERS virus has been found in the Middle East and South Korea. Do Australians have to be wary of travelling to these places?

Look, certainly to the Middle East. It’s an ongoing outbreak and has been for a long time now. And certainly countries through the Middle East are taking strong actions to try and contain the virus and they’ve been quite successful at that. But there still are sporadic outbreaks going on, it’s still an ongoing problem there. Outside of the Middle East it is incredibly unlikely that anybody would come into contact with anybody who’s infected and this small cluster in Korea is not unlike the other minor events that have occurred in other countries outside the Middle East over the last year and a half.