MERS Cases Continue As Hajj Season Approaches In Saudi Arabia
September 4, 2013

MERS Cases Continue As Hajj Season Approaches In Saudi Arabia

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Despite no new information over the past few days, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health has reported 14 new laboratory-confirmed cases of MERS-CoV to the World Health Organization (WHO) over three days, from August 28-30.

Along with the eight confirmed cases reported to WHO on August 28, the Ministry reported two additional cases on August 29 and four more on August 30.

The latest patients include a 59-year-old man with an underlying medical condition who became ill on August 15 and is in stable condition. An investigation led experts to find this man had traveled to Medina, Saudi Arabia on August 9, six days prior to onset of illness. He reportedly did not take part in Umrah and had not visited Al-Masjid an-Nabawi during his stay in Medina.

A second patient confirmed on August 29 was a 29-year-old man with an underlying medical condition who had no history of travel outside the country.

On August 30, the Ministry reported of a 55-year-old man with an underlying medical condition from Medina who became ill on August 17 and is currently hospitalized. A second patient is a 38-year-old man with an underlying medical condition from Hafar al-Batin who became ill on August 8 and died on August 17.

The third and fourth cases are family contacts of the second patient. Both of those cases, a 16-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl, tested positive for MERS-CoV. They are both healthy and have not shown any symptoms of illness.

The latest confirmed cases bring the total illnesses linked to MERS-CoV to 108, with 50 deaths.

A recent report in the Wall Street Journal shows that concern is on the rise as Saudi Arabia prepares for the Hajj season, which begins in October – when the kingdom is expected to see a surge of more than three million pilgrims from 187 countries.

While the WHO and most international experts have commended the measures taken by Saudi Arabia since the virus showed its ugly face last September, some visitors to the region suggest there is still a huge gap in health measures, as seen in the continued threat of illness due to MERS-CoV in the Middle East.

“To be honest, we have no idea how to protect ourselves, how to prevent it,” one of two Japanese businessmen told WSJ last week at Riyadh’s airport. They said, like most other visitors interviewed, that they had not seen any public health advisories on MERS during their stay in the kingdom.

With the Hajj fast approaching, it would seem appropriate for the kingdom to take a wider stance on ensuring the public’s safety during this time when Muslims from around the world converge on the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to worship.

During a briefing last Friday at the University of Florida College of Public Health, a Saudi health official said the kingdom has recommended that children, elderly, and those who are ill, to forgo the Hajj this year because of the virus.

While cases of MERS seem to be on the incline, the WHO has yet to enforce or advise any trade or travel restrictions to the Middle East and only urges Member States to keep a close eye on signs of illness within the healthcare system. Earlier in July, the WHO also ruled during an international health official meeting that MERS so far does not represent a public-health emergency. That announcement could be seen as a retraction to a statement made by the WHO's Margaret Chan earlier in May, saying that MERS was a "threat to the entire world."

Saudi Arabia has continued to extensively test for the virus, and the kingdom mounts massive health programs each year when the Hajj influx occurs, including some 20,000 health professionals who are on hand to deal with health emergencies, according to an official with the Ministry of Health.

But despite their efforts, one medical professional said the kingdom should be doing more to get details of MERS out more quickly.

“While we have seen very detailed reports in scientific journals, these are not up-to-the-minute, and not suitable as the only flow of public health information,” Dr. Ian M. Mackay, an infectious disease expert at the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Center at Australia’s University of Queensland, said in his medical blog on Monday. “A more rapid information flow is required.”