Saudi Arabia Seeks to Ease Concerns After New MERS Cases

The government of Saudi Arabia is trying to reassure its citizens that the most recent outbreak of a respiratory virus isn’t a cause for alarm following 16 new cases, including two deaths, reported in the last nine days.

The Saudi health ministry sent text messages through local carriers yesterday asking the country’s 30 million residents to check its website, call a free hotline and check its official Twitter account for updates on the coronavirus, which causes Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome or MERS. The virus doesn’t spread easily between people, and no cases have been observed related to crowds, in schools or at football stadiums, the Saudi Press Agency reported, citing a ministry official.

Almost 230 people are known to have been infected since the virus emerged in Saudi Arabia two years ago, and 92 of them have died, according to the World Health Organization. Much about the disease and how it’s transmitted is still unknown, making it a concern, said David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“Whenever there’s an emerging infection from the animal kingdom into humans, it’s a cause for alarm,” Heymann said. “These are random events, and should this virus mutate tomorrow in a way that could infect people, it could be very serious.”

The virus was first detected in Saudi Arabia in April 2012, and is related to the SARS virus that spread from southern China in 2002. Scientists believe that MERS was first transmitted to humans from camels.

Close Proximity

The disease is most serious in people with another illness, such as diabetes, and only seems to be transmitted from person to person when they are in close proximity to an ill person, such as in a hospital, Heymann said.

At least two of the 16 cases reported to WHO since April 6 had underlying medical conditions, according to a statement posted on the agency’s website. Five other cases were health-care workers.

All the cases are in Saudi Arabia, except one man from Abu Dhabi. Health authorities in the United Arab Emirates are investigating that case, the WHO said.

Some of the mystery could be removed through a control study, which would compare the exposures of an infected person to a healthy person in the same situation to isolate the cause, Heymann said. After almost two years, no such study has been performed, he said.

“There needs to be hard work done to identify the source,” Heymann said.

In an April 9 statement, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Rabeeah, the minister of health, said the recent outbreak isn’t an epidemic and not to rely on social media for information. He also said that there is no vaccine for the virus.

“Dr. Al-Rabeeah has prayed for Almighty Allah to preserve this country, its leadership, its citizens and all who live on its land from all evils,” the ministry said in the statement. Calls made to the ministry weren’t returned.

To contact the reporters on this story: Oliver Staley in London at ostaley@bloomberg.net; Deema Almashabi in Riyadh at dalmashabi@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kristen Hallam at khallam@bloomberg.net Thomas Mulier

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