Tips on protecting yourself against MERS infections

As South Korea struggles to contain the spread of the Middle East Respiratory Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), neighbouring Asian countries are becoming increasingly concerned and want to learn more about the disease and how to protect themselves against infection.

Since the first reported case of MERS infection in South Korea on May 20, the number of MERS infection cases has climbed to 165 and the death toll has risen to 23 as of June 18.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that approximately 36 per cent of patients suffering from the respiratory infection have died since it was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

Older patients, patients with weakened immune systems, and patients suffering from chronic diseases are more likely to not survive the infection.

Health experts have recommended a range of ways that you can protect yourself and minimise risk of infection. This includes washing your hands regularly and wearing a surgical mask when coming into contact with others who have respiratory illnesses.

Here are some frequently asked questions about the respiratory illness published by the Ministry of Health on its website:

What is MERS-CoV?

It is a coronavirus which causes acute respiratory illness in infected patients.

Although most human coronaviruses only cause mild respiratory illnesses like the common cold, the MERS-CoV and the SARS coronavirus can cause severe illness.

How does the MERS virus spread?

The WHO says that the virus does not appear to be transmitted easily from person to person unless there is close contact with an infected person. Most cases of infections have been found to occur in healthcare settings, said the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

How to tell if you have the common cold, the flu or something more severe?

Those who are infected with MERS may present symptoms similar to other respiratory infections such as fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Therefore, seeking medical attention promptly is crucial if you suffer from the abovementioned symptoms and have travelled to any MERS-affected country recently.

How can you protect yourself and others from being exposed to MERS infection?

The MOH advises members of the public to:

- Observe good personal hygiene at all times

- Wash their hands frequently

- Wear surgical masks in crowded places and avoid close contact with those who are suffering from respiratory infections

- Avoid contact with camels, live farm animals or wild animals. Practise good food safety and hygiene practices

- Wear a surgical mask and seek medical attention promptly if they become unwell with fever and cough while travelling in or if they had travelled to any areas reporting human cases of MERS-CoV in the last 2 weeks. They should also inform the doctor of the areas that they have travelled to.

Is there a vaccination or medication to treat MERS?

According to MOH, there is currently no vaccination for the respiratory infection.

Those who develop fever, cough and breathlessness within two weeks of returning from affected countries should seek medical attention immediately.

What is MOH doing to protect the public against MERS?

In an advisory on June 6, MOH said that it is closely monitoring the development of MERS in South Korea and that it has rolled out a series of measures to protect the public from the infection.

It has reminded local hospitals to remain vigilant by screening and isolating any suspected case of MERS infection.

Those with signs and symptoms of pneumonia or severe respiratory infection, and those who have recently travelled to the Middle East and South Korea before showing the symptoms will be further observed for signs of MERS infection.

Besides putting up health advisories at border checkpoints for travelers who are travelling to or returning from MERS-affected areas, local airports are also screening the body temperatures of those travelling to or returning from the Middle East since May last year and South Korea as of June 9 this year.

minlee@sph.com.sg

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