The FIFA World Cup in 2022 has had its fair share of controversy, but as the competition continues anyway, fresh fears are coming to light. A warning on the Australian Ministry of Health website in December 2022 suggested that travellers returning from World Cup should “be aware” of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). This has given way to anxious murmurs throughout international news outlets that “camel flu” is a significant threat. So, what is MERS, what steps are we taking against it, and how worried should we be?  

SARS’ camelid cousin 

MERS is described by the WHO as a zoonotic viral respiratory disease caused by MERS-CoV. Part of the coronavirus family of viruses, which we are now all too familiar with, MERS causes symptoms ranging from fever and coughing to gastrointestinal symptoms and pneumonia. The estimated death rate, according to WHO, is around 35%. However, WHO acknowledges that this may be an overestimation due to mild cases evading surveillance.  

As a zoonotic virus, it is linked to infections in dromedary camels across parts of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. It was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Since then, around 80% of human cases are reported by Saudi Arabia, most often after contact with “infected dromedary camels or infected individuals in health care facilities”. Cases outside the Middle East are “usually individuals who appear to have been infected in the Middle East” before external travel.  

What about vaccination? 

Although there are no specific treatments or vaccines available, there are several in clinical development. Thus, current treatment responds to the patient’s specific condition. Furthermore, prevention relies on stringent personal and food hygiene measures, as are currently being promoted by national health agencies and the WHO.

What are the risks to football fans? 

Those who have travelled to Qatar for the World Cup are unlikely to be at risk, the UKHSA states, but warns that the low chances of person-to-person transmission are still there. According to various UK news outlets, it has advised doctors to be alert to patients suffering from fever or respiratory difficulties. However, WHO data suggests that since 2012 Qatar has reported a total of 28 human cases, with 7 deaths. Therefore, the risks are presumably lower than the news would suggest. This does not mean that travellers should be careless with their camelid encounters, but offers some reassurance that this threat is currently contained.  

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