Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

Saudi Arabian health official deflects MERS questions

Cross-posted from the Nature News blog on behalf of Sarah Zhang.

Saudi Arabia is beefing up its surveillance of a deadly coronavirus in advance of Muslims’ annual pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajj, which is set to begin on 13 October.

Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS) has infected 135 people and killed 58 since it emerged about a year ago. Saudi Arabia has been hardest hit, with 117 confirmed cases and 49 deaths.

Now, with nearly 2 million foreign pilgrims expected to journey to Saudi Arabia for the five-day Hajj, the country is on high alert for signs of new MERS cases, according to Ziad Memish, Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister of health for public health.

Saudi Arabia will have public-health officers staffing all land, air and sea ports of entry day and night during the pilgrimage, Memish said during a 2 October talk at the IDWeek infectious-disease conference in San Francisco, California. Hospitals in the cities of Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina will be actively screening pneumonia patients for MERS using tests that produce results in six hours.

Saudi officials are also asking pilgrims to wear face masks — and for those who are elderly, pregnant or ill to stay home. “The bad news is they still come to the Hajj, so pray for us,” Memish said.

But he deflected questions about what his country is doing to determine the source and transmission patterns of the still-mysterious MERS, despite criticism that Saudi Arabia is moving too slowly on such work. Although Memish confirmed that Saudi Arabia will be conducting a comprehensive case-control study — comparing sick and healthy individuals to look for possible infection sources — he declined to offer further details.

In the lead up to the Hajj, the World Health Organization has also called on countries sending pilgrims to step up surveillance efforts. However, many of those countries, especially in the developing world, lack the resources to do so. Millions of pilgrims, not on the Hajj specifically, have been through Saudi Arabia since the MERS outbreak began without bringing the virus home. But other travellers have, and it remains to be seen what will happen in October and beyond.


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