breath easy

Fears about MERS at the World Cup are overblown

A fabricated panic over so-called "camel flu" is being used to spread racist stereotypes
Fears about MERS at the World Cup are overblown
Photo: Christopher Pike (Getty Images)
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The UK Health Security Agency (HSA) alerted doctors across the UK that soccer fans coming back from Qatar might carry Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

That’s according to the New York Daily News, quoting Metro, which read it in The Sun, which may have learned it from the Daily Mail, which says The Times reported it—though the London newspaper doesn’t seem to have written about MERS in quite some time.

The note isn’t available on any of the HSA’s channels, though Australian Health Officials did share some information about MERS on its site on Dec. 2, saying that all travelers coming back from the Middle East (including those attending the World Cup) should be aware of its symptoms.

This is a standard notice, however. The kind that is shared with anyone traveling to a part of the world where they might be exposed to a disease that is not otherwise found in their country of origin. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a similar one, and so does the HSA, though neither mentions the World Cup.

It’s important to be informed of the health risks associated with travels, but there is not much more to see here. MERS is unlikely to spread with fans returning from the World Cup, let alone cause another pandemic.

It does, however, show how diseases can stoke xenophobia.

What is MERS

MERS is, like covid, a coronavirus. Its symptoms are flu-like, and covid-like, including shortness of breath, fever, cough, sore throat, muscle and stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea.

But in terms of the virus’s behavior, the similarities with covid are fewer than its differences. For one, MERS does not spread easily. Only 2,500 cases of MERS have been identified since 2012, compared to more than 650 million cases of covid. On the other hand, it is far deadlier, killing 35% of patients. It is difficult to transmit between humans, as it replicates in the lower respiratory tract, and is caught instead by direct contact with sick camels (who don’t actually get very sick from MERS), or drinking unpasteurized camel milk.

One disease, two bad names

The sensationalist headlines about MERS are stoking all sorts of extreme reactions among readers. The very name of the disease is problematic, as it associates the virus to a location, adding stigma and causing confusion. One of the largest outbreaks of MERS was in South Korea, where 200 people got sick in 2015. Because of this risk, the UN recommends not naming pathogens after locations, although MERS pre-dates such guidelines.

Even worse is “camel flu,” which news organizations and others often use instead of MERS. Although indeed the disease is transmitted by camels, the label conjures stereotypical images of the Gulf countries, feeding xenophobia and ever so unconsciously suggesting an association between its people and a disease. It also risks confusing people: As some experts noted, there is a chance that name “camel flu” could minimize the severity of the disease.