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The aim of this study was to survey nursing students’ Middle East respiratory syndrome–related knowledge, preventive behaviours and risk perception to examine the correlations among the variables during a Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak.Middle East respiratory syndrome is a new viral respiratory illness. Nursing students who engage in clinical practice at hospitals may have been exposed to Middle East respiratory syndrome infection during the Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak.This study was a descriptive cross-sectional survey.Participants (n = 249) were nursing students in their third or fourth year of the programme who were engaged in clinical practice for eight hours per day at the tertiary hospitals with Middle East respiratory syndrome patients. Knowledge, preventive behaviours and risk perception related to Middle East respiratory syndrome were measured using scales developed through a preliminary survey and validity testing.The subjects’ knowledge level of Middle East respiratory syndrome was 84·4%; their practice of preventive behaviours was rated at 44·5%; and their risk perception rating was 2·4 out of 5. Middle East respiratory syndrome–related risk perception was significantly different according to gender and Middle East respiratory syndrome education. Middle East respiratory syndrome–related knowledge was significantly correlated with preventive behaviours and risk perception.Considering the low scores for items regarding knowledge and preventive behaviours, it is necessary to develop effective and systematic publicity and education programmes for nursing students. Enhancing Middle East respiratory syndrome–related knowledge by considering cooperation between hospitals and universities will sharpen nursing students’ risk perception of the disease and effectively increase their preventive behaviours.Similar to other emerging infectious diseases, Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreaks may occur in other countries. The results of this study can be used to develop and apply efficient and feasible Middle East respiratory syndrome education programmes for nursing students during Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreaks.