UN warns countries to bolster fight against MERS

Saudis wear mouth and nose masks as they watch camels at their farm on May 12 outside Riyadh
Saudis wear mouth and nose masks as they watch camels at their farm on May 12 outside Riyadh

GENEVA: The UN health agency warned countries to bolster their guard against the MERS virus, which has killed 152 people in Saudi Arabia and is causing alarm as it spreads elsewhere.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said its emergency committee, which includes global medical and policy experts, had flagged mounting concerns about the potentially fatal Middle East Respiratory Virus (MERS).

“They reached a consensus that the situation had increased in seriousness and that their concerns about the situation had also increased in terms of urgency,” Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s health security head, told reporters.

The agency called on countries to improve infection prevention and control, collect more data on the virus and to be vigilant in preventing it from spreading to vulnerable countries, notably in Africa.

A total of 571 MERS cases have been reported to the WHO, of which 171 have proved fatal. In many of them, victims caught the virus in hospital from other patients, although experts believe camels may also spread the disease.

The vast majority of infections have been reported in Saudi Arabia, and cases outside the Gulf nation have largely involved people who had traveled there.

The Netherlands became the 13th country outside of Saudi Arabia to report a case of MERS since December.

Fukuda said that while Riyadh had done its best to stem the spread of MERS, a WHO team there still found “sub-optimal” infection-control and overcrowding in hospitals.

Cases have also risen outside hospitals, possibly because of the winter season or an increase in infections among animal carriers, Fukuda said.

Saudi Arabia’s agriculture ministry has urged citizens to wear masks and gloves when handling camels, which are thought to be the source of the mysterious corona virus in the Gulf state.

“It’s clear that there is no convincing evidence right now for an increase in the transmissibility of this virus,” Fukuda said.

“If it is really associated with camels, and all of the infections are from camels to people and it does not become very transmissible among people, then I think that there’s a reasonable chance that it would stay a regional infection, Fukuda added.

There have been confirmed or suspected cases in Egypt, Greece, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Oman, Philippines, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Yemen since December.

Not an emergency yet
LONDON: The spread of a puzzling respiratory virus in the Middle East and beyond does not yet constitute a global health emergency despite a recent spike in cases, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.

The decision was made after a meeting of WHO’s expert group on the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

MERS often starts with flu-like symptoms but can lead to pneumonia, breathing problems and in severe cases, kidney failure and death.
“Calling a global emergency in a world which has a lot of urgent issues going on is a major act.

You have to have really solid information to say this is a global emergency,” Dr Fukuda said.

Fukuda said there wasn’t yet proof of the virus’ sustained transmission among people.

WHO has however declared the world’s widening polio outbreaks to be an international health emergency.

Some scientists said while MERS technically meets the criteria for a global health emergency, declaring it as such could confuse the public.

“People might think (WHO) is crying wolf because MERS is still primarily a problem in the Middle East,” said Michael Osterholm, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Minnesota who has worked in the Middle East.

“But if one of those infected people gets on a plane and lands in London, Toronto, New York or Hong Kong and transmits to another 30 people, everyone will have a different view,” Michael added.

The Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health and the Environment announced its first case of MERS, a man who became infected during a visit to Saudi Arabia.

Experts say the spread of MERS is worryingly similar to the 2003 global outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS, which infected about 8,000 people in 2003, killing nearly 800. MERS is genetically related to SARS.

Scientists are unsure exactly how people are catching MERS but suspect the disease is linked to camels. WHO recommends that people avoid contact with the animals, skip drinking camel milk or using camel urine in traditional medicines and only eat camel meat that has been well cooked.-AP, AFP

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