A confirmed case of infection by Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus was reported in Qatar, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced today. This raises the total number of confirmed cases worldwide to 139, including 60 deaths, in the period spanning Sept. 2012 to date.

This most recent case is a 61-year-old man. He was admitted to a hospital on Oct. 11, where he remains in stable condition. An ongoing investigation has revealed that he has not traveled outside Qatar in the two weeks prior to becoming ill. Though he owns a farm, which includes camels, sheep, and hens, none of the animals that have been examined have tested positive for the MERS coronavirus. Further tests of animals on the farm are expected to be made.

No cases of MERS infection have been reported in the U.S. The majority of infections have occurred in Saudia Arabia. The virus has spread in some cases from person to person — for instance, from patient to health care worker. Public health authorities, though, have not yet observed MERS to spread in a sustained way through a community.

What is MERS?

The first reported case of MERS occurred in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Middle East respiratory syndrome is a viral respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus. MERS is unlike other coronaviruses, including the one that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. Coronaviruses constitute a family of viruses that may cause a range of illnesses, from the common cold to SARS. They also can infect animals.

In a progress report issued last month, WHO noted 58 of 130 confirmed cases — 45 percent — resulted in death. Of 124 cases for which sex is known, 77 cases or 63 percent were male. The range of known ages spanned 14 months to 94 years with a median age of 50.

Some MERS patients have only mild respiratory illness, while others developed severe acute respiratory illness with fever, cough, vomiting, diarrhea, and shortness of breath. One reason for concern about this infection is that it can progress swiftly. Additionally, scientists do not understand how the virus is being transmitted. Although researchers have detected the strain in camels, for instance, it is unclear whether these animals are passing the virus to humans. Evidence of person-to-person transmission is clear, yet the spread of infection has not been rapid, suggesting it is not yet highly contagious.

There is neither a vaccine nor specific treatment for MERS. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests Muslim pilgrims traditionally travel to Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah between the months of July and November. In light of MERS, the Saudia Arabia Ministry of Health issued an announcement in July of this year, urging postponement of religious duties for the elderly, pregnant women, children, and patients suffering from chronic and other diseases. The CDC has not issued travel restrictions, though it recommends simple protections against respiratory illnesses, such as hand washing and avoiding contact with persons who are ill, to those who may be journeying in the Arabian peninsula.