How Worried Should We Be About MERS After The World Cup?

There are concerns about Middle East respiratory syndrome – but these are the facts.
Argentina celebrate their win at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022
Richard Sellers via Getty Images
Argentina celebrate their win at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022

MERS – or Middle East respiratory syndrome – has been trending on social media following the Qatar World Cup. And after the three years we’ve just been through, another global pandemic is the last thing anybody needs.

But what is MERS? And how worried should we really be about it?

What is MERS?

MERS (MERS-CoV) is a rare respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus – and different to Covid 19.

It’s spread between animals and people, according to the NHS, and there’s “evidence that camels in the Middle East are the main source of the virus”.

MERS can also be passed from person to person through cough droplets, but there have been just five cases of MERS detected in the UK since 2012.

Though rare, the illness is severe – around 35% of people who get MERS die as a result of the infection.

Symptoms include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • difficulty breathing
  • diarrhoea and vomiting

There is no known treatment to ‘cure’ MERS, but treatment can be offered to ease symptoms.

As football fans return from Qatar to their home countries, some have shared concerns about the virus spreading.

The Australian government’s health department has also urged anyone travelling home from Qatar to be aware of the symptoms of MERS, which has got many people asking whether other countries also need to be more vigilant.

Why are people worried?

We’ve lived through a really scary period of history, so it’s not surprising some people feel on high alert for the ‘next Covid-19’.

Concerns have also spiked with people sharing an article published by academics in The Lancet Global Health journal, in which they discuss why the World Cup may – in theory – create conditions that stimulate the spread of MERS.

“In Qatar two mass gathering events are being held simultaneously, the FIFA World Cup 2022 championship and the Camel Mzayen Club’s camel beauty pageant festival,” the report states.

“These have attracted hundreds of thousands of people from within the Middle East and across the world. Many are attending both events, interacting closely with each other and with camels, creating ideal conditions for the transmission of camel-associated zoonotic pathogens with epidemic potential.

“These pathogens include the highly lethal MERS-CoV. Dromedary camels in the Middle East are a major reservoir of MERS-CoV. Humans sporadically become infected through direct or indirect contact with MERS-CoV-infected camels or camel dairy products.”

The authors urge travellers to seek medical support if they recognise symptoms and authorities to take “rapid implementation of appropriate infection control measures” should they be needed.

The name may be contributing towards concerns

An article in Forbes states that Qatar has previously seen cases of MERS, but the numbers were very low – just 28 reported cases, “which comes out to an incidence of 1.7 per million people in Qatar”.

Instead, the article suggests that some of the concern around the World Cup and MERS stems from the stigmatising name of the virus.

In 2015, the World Health Organisation issued guidance stating that viruses shouldn’t be named after countries, in order to avoid “unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people”.

However, the MERS name pre-dates this guidance (it was named when the virus was first found in Saudi Arabia in 2012).

As Forbes points out: “The MERS name may have already generated unfair stigma to those who are currently in Middle East or of Middle East decent.”

Others on social media have pointed out that unfortunately, we now live in a world where conditions are primed for viruses to spread. It may simply become part of life to hear concerns about viruses every time we celebrate large global events.

What’s the advice now?

The NHS says if you develop a fever, cough or difficulty breathing within 14 days of returning from the Middle East, you should get medical advice. Call NHS 111 or a GP.

As far as we know, there are currently no reported cases of MERS in the UK linked to the World Cup.