Can your travel insurance include cover for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus?
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), sometimes known as camel flu, is an incurable disease that first emerged in Jordan or Saudi Arabia in 2012, but has since spread around the world. South Korea experienced a major outbreak with multiple deaths in 2015, and other countries have also found returning travellers carrying the virus.
Symptoms can include severe, acute respiratory difficulties alongside fever, coughing and shortness of breath, though some infected people will show few symptoms at all. MERS is particularly deadly to individuals with other health conditions or underlying medical issues.
If you’re visiting a country in the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen Lebanon, Qatar, Kuwait or Oman, where MERS cases have been confirmed, you should be aware of potential issues with MERS and your travel insurance cover. It may not be recognised if there have been warnings issued against it.
- 36% mortality rate
- No vaccine or clear cure
- Can affect people of any age
- Often characterised by acute respiratory difficulties alongside flu symptoms
- Camels are suspected to be the source of the infection, but it is not known how the virus is transmitted
- Human-to-human transmission is relatively difficult, requiring sustained close contact, such as in a hospital
What travel insurance exclusions do I need to watch out for when it comes to MERS?
While there are little or no specific exclusions or restrictions enacted around MERS, there may be some general travel insurance exclusions which could apply to a MERS-related claim.
- Likely epidemics and pandemics. Even where a policy has an exclusion for epidemics, pandemics or “likely” epidemics or pandemics, this should not include MERS as it is fairly rare, and human-to-human transmission is difficult. In other words, it is not dangerous enough to qualify as an epidemic or pandemic.
- Travel warnings. Parts of the Middle East may be subject to travel advisories. Check smartraveller.gov.au prior to choosing a policy to see if a travel warning applies.
- Failure to take precautions and follow advice. Being covered by travel insurance for medical issues is dependent on you following medical advice, such as not travelling if a doctor advises against it. Depending on the insurer, you might also be required to take additional steps such as avoiding personal contact with sick people.
- Pre-existing medical conditions. The vast majority of MERS-related fatalities have involved underlying health issues which were exacerbated by the MERS virus. Such health issues are often considered pre-existing conditions, which means it is very important that you raise any issues you may already have with your insurer before visiting the Middle East. If you don’t get cover for pre-existing conditions, and then those conditions are exacerbated by MERS, your medical claim may be rejected.
Which countries have reported MERS outbreaks?
- Saudi Arabia
- South Korea
How to protect yourself from MERS
It is thought that MERS originated in bats, then spread to camels at some point, and as of 2012 started spreading from camels to humans. Person-to-person transmission can occur, particularly when in close contact, such as in hospitals or when someone is caring for another person with MERS.
It is not known exactly how MERS is transmitted, and travellers are advised to protect themselves with the same precautions as against other respiratory conditions:
- Wash hands thoroughly, using soap or hand sanitiser as available.
- Avoid contact with infected individuals, whether animal or human, where possible.
- Practise good hygiene after visiting barns or coming in contact with camels or other nearby animals.
- Avoid camel products except when safely prepared. Milk should be pasteurised and meat should be thoroughly cooked.
- Individuals with respiratory issues or pre-existing health conditions are advised to avoid contact with camels entirely.
- Certain health issues have been known to increase the risks posed by MERS. Specifically identified conditions include diabetes, renal failure, chronic lung disease and immunocompromisation.
What should I do if I think I have MERS?
Unless you’re working with camels or in a hospital it’s very unlikely that you will contract MERS. If you think you have, seek medical attention immediately. Diagnosis can take time because the symptoms are similar to many other more common diseases. To avoid the risk of contagion you might also be advised not to continue travelling, so your travel insurance policy should include cover for some of the resulting costs.
There are few effective treatments specifically for the MERS virus, and current practice is generally to treat patients for their individual symptoms.
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