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Saudi Arabia in battle against MERS in the run-up to Hajj

Saudi Arabia is preparing preventive health measures to reduce the spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome before Hajj next month
Pilgrims undergo health checks at a Hajj Camp at the airport in Lagos on Friday (AFP)

While West Africa is struggling to contain the Ebola virus outbreak, in Saudi Arabia the health authorities are preparing to prevent the spread of another deadly virus.

With up to 2 million people from 188 countries expected to visit the Kingdom next month for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, health workers are being mobilised to prevent the spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, known as MERS.

“The World Health Organization and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are working closely to ensure that effective measures are in place before the Hajj pilgrimage, from awareness raising to surveillance, and to put in place mitigating measures including a strong surveillance system to prevent any outbreaks of diseases,” Rana Sidani, a spokeswoman for the UN’s health agency, known by the acronym WHO.

MERS is a viral respiratory illness, the symptoms of which include a fever, cough or shortness of breath. It can cause pneumonia and kidney failure.

As of this week, 302 people have died from MERS out of 732 cases, a fatality rate of more than 40 percent, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

The vast majority of cases have been reported in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Arabian Peninsula, with a smaller number around the world thought to have been spread by visitors to the region.

Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Health has confirmed six new cases since 8 September.

The exact source of the virus is unknown but the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it most likely comes from animals, particularly camels.

The virus, first reported in 2012, has been found in camels in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Egypt. According to the CDC, people may have been infected after contact with camels although more information is needed to be certain of the animals’ role in transmitting MERS.

Like other infectious diseases, MERS spreads quickly in crowded spaces, posing a particular risk during the Hajj. Saudi Arabia is now taking precautionary measures to prevent an outbreak during the pilgrimage.

Visitors are being advised to wash their hands regularly and cover their mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing, the UN spokesperson told Anadolu Agency.

They are also being warned to avoid undercooked meat and food prepared in unsanitary conditions and to wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly.

The WHO has prepared posters giving precautionary information on MERS that will be displayed prominently for Hajj pilgrims.

"Effective vaccines or drugs against MERS are currently not available and are still under the early phase of the development," Dr Chien-Te Tseng, associate professor of microbiology & immunology at the University of Texas said.

Although medical care can provide relief from the symptoms, there is no cure. The virus is considered a “public health concern” by the WHO but the threat has not been upgraded because of the relative lack of sustained transmission from person to person and the restriction of such cases to hospitals, where poor prevention methods are being addressed.