The night before I boarded my British Airways flight to Europe I read a news story on MERS that really scared the crap out of me. MERS—an acronym for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome—is a virus that’s slowly gaining stamina and has infected more than 500 people since it was first identified in 2012. It’s now spread to 16 countries and thanks to air travel there are at least two cases in the United States.
The scariest part about MERS is that it has killed about a third of its victims. According to the CDC, “It is caused by a coronavirus called MERS-CoV. Most people who have been confirmed to have MERS-CoV infection developed severe acute respiratory illness. They had fever, cough, and shortness of breath. About 30% of these people died.”
So far the following countries have reported cases of MERS: Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen; France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom; Tunisia and Egypt; Malaysia and the Philippines; and the United States of America.
They say MERS has been shown to spread between people who are in close contact, so here are the best ways to protect yourself from this respiratory illnesses:
- Wash your hands often: When I travel I’m almost borderline Howard-Hughes-insane about germs. I constantly wash my hands with soap and water for 20 seconds. If water is not available I use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Keep your dirty hands away from your face: If you have unwashed hands then do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Cover your nose and mouth: This should be common sense but it’s not. When you sneeze or cough use a tissue to cover your nose or mouth then throw the tissue in the trash instead of stuffing it in your pocket.
- Wear a surgical mask: In Japan everyone wears a surgical mask when they’re sick. Why can’t we bring that tradition to America or, better yet, the rest of the world? Who cares if people think you look like a freak? As you can see from the photo above I put on my mask recently not because I was sick but because the passenger next to me was and was coughing without covering his mouth. After I put on my mask and gave him my “crazy eyes” look he got the hint. You would be appalled at how many people I see on planes not covering their nose or mouth with a tissue when they cough or sneeze. These people should be given a fine—but that’s another story.
- Avoid sick people: This is more common sense but the CDC lists it as one of their preventative measures: Avoid close contact, such as kissing, sharing cups or sharing eating utensils with sick people. Duh!
- Disinfect everything: When I travel I bring alcohol-based disinfectant wipes and wipe down everything I touch (overhead compartment latch, seatbelt, in-flight entertainment screen and controls, tray table…)—and the same goes for everything in the hotel room (door knobs, remote controls, light switches…). The CDC also recommends cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces at home and toys for kids.
- See a doctor: If you’re returning from the Middle East or come in close contact with someone who is and you come down “with acute respiratory illness, especially those with fever and cough and pulmonary parenchymal disease (e.g. pneumonia or the acute respiratory distress syndrome)” go to the doctor immediately.
- Travel insurance: Before you leave, check to see if your health insurance covers you during your travels (especially international). If not, buy travel insurance. It’s not expensive and provides great piece of mind. I use InsureMyTrip.com, which lets you call or book the best plan for a particular trip online using one of their 24 travel insurance brokers.
I hope you find this helpful and you stay healthy! Below is some key information about MERS:
- CDC: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)
- WHO: Frequently Asked Questions on Middle East Respiratory Syndrome
- CNN: MERS outbreak becomes more urgent, WHO says