Additional MERS Cases Raise Concerns Over Saudi Arabian Pilgrimage
October 6, 2013

Additional MERS Cases Raise Concerns Over Saudi Arabian Pilgrimage

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

As the hajj season in Saudi Arabia quickly approaches, the country’s Ministry of Health (MOH) is ramping up efforts to keep millions of pilgrims safe from falling ill to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

The annual pilgrimage occurs from October 13-18 with millions expected to be flocking to Mecca and Medina for prayer and worship. While the MOH had not reported any known cases of MERS-CoV stemming from the previous year’s hajj, there are still concerns that the elderly, children and those with compromised immunity could be susceptible to a deadly virus.

The MOH has been continuously updating any and all known cases to the World Health Organization (WHO) since February, when the illness was only labeled as a Novel Coronavirus. Since the MOH’s report on February 21, 2013, MERS-CoV illnesses have climbed from 13 to 136 and from seven to 58 deaths. Most people who have fallen ill and/or died from this virus have been elderly and with underlying health conditions. However, children have also been susceptible to this virus, with several known cases.

The new case count of 136 comes after the MOH reported an additional six lab-confirmed cases to the WHO. The six new cases are all from the Riyadh region and range in age from 14 to 79 years old -- including three men and three women. The dates of onset for these patients range from Sept. 15 to Sept. 26, 2013.

Three of the patients are contacts of previously confirmed cases of MERS-CoV, two are reported to have had no exposure to confirmed cases or animals, and there was no exposure information for the final patient.

With the hajj nearly a week away, the MOH is continuing to prepare for the possibility that MERS-CoV could spread, despite no mass spread seen during previous pilgrimages to the holy land. Still, it is urging that elderly, children and those with underlying medical conditions forgo this year’s pilgrimage to protect themselves from possible infection.

The biggest fear is that pilgrims may carry the disease back to their homelands, giving a virus that has so far had limited outbreak beyond the borders of the Middle East a new route to the world, possibly kicking off a global pandemic. Still, Saudi authorities are remaining optimistic that the hajj will come and go without any outbreaks.

Dr. Nazreen Sherbini, a specialist in infectious diseases and influenza with the MOH, has advised pilgrims to wear masks in crowded places, according to CIDRAP.

"Pilgrims should wear protective masks that cover the noses and mouths in crowded places and follow basic health etiquette while sneezing or coughing," Dr. Nazreen Sherbini was quoted as saying.

Currently, neither the WHO nor the US CDC recommend that travelers where protective masks when visiting the Middle East, and there remains not enough information or concern to issue travel and/or trade restrictions with the region.