I thought as there has been another recent flurry of concern about Mers that I should update my readers on the status quo here.
This week there has been a flood of articles around the world about the virus mainly due to an American being infected. I am surreptitiously checking to make sure that I did not travel on the same BA flight as him!
Since I last wrote, scientists are now fairly certain that the virus was transmitted from Camels to humans, but that the original progenitor of the virus was (possibly) bats. Evidence from blood testing indicates that the virus is widespread in camel populations around the middle east.
More worryingly there has been a recent upsurge of cases in Saudi Arabia, by late yesterday (May 7th) another 18 cases had been identified pushing the total number to 449 cases and 117 deaths (in total). Originally, most of the infections were directly from camels or immediate family members, but the most recent cases 75% can be traced from Human to Human transmission, particularly in a health care setting.
In April (2014) there was a spike in the number of cases, a 65% increase, and without warning the Saudi Health Minister, Abdullah al-Rabiah, was sacked. The bulk of the cases have occurred in hospitals which suggests a breach in infection prevention and control measures. A WHO team was dispatched to Jeddah to investigate, but they have been clear to suggest that there has not been a change in the virus’s ability to spread. The Saudi Ministry of Health has set up 3 emergency centers to deal with the disease, in Jeddah, Riyadh and Damman.
There is a lack of epidemiological information about the virus, in as much it could have infected large numbers of people mildly, but because the situation is changing so rapidly there has not been enough testing to have a broader view of its transmission. WHO, is suggesting that anyone who is admitted to hospital with mild respiratory problems should be automatically tested for MERS, this of course, in the Middle East has cost implications. One of the problems of tracking this disease is the number of people who have no contact with health care professionals. Nobody really knows how many cases there could be that are un-reported.
I think the question that everybody is asking is: Should I be worried? I have asthma, so for me any respiratory disease is literally a killer. So far, I am not wandering around Riyadh in a face mask, but I have to say that I am a great deal more thorough with hand washing. I will, if possible, avoid all contact with hospitals and doctor’s waiting rooms.
I have noticed that there is an increased vigilance amongst the general population. Check-out staff in super markets are wearing face masks. Flyers in bathrooms everywhere stress the importance of hand washing, and people glance worriedly at any cough or sneeze in public. The Filippino population are definitely concerned, my driver says that many people are considering leaving Saudi Arabia because of MERS and that the Filippino government is conducting stringent health checks on anyone returning from the Kingdom. A friend of mine’s daughter was called by the public health department in the UK, to warn her about symptoms, as someone on her flight was diagnosed with MERS after arrival from Saudi Arabia.
People here talk about transparency and worry that they are not being given the whole story about the disease. When speaking to friends who have lived here for years, they believe that there is likely to be a woeful un-reporting of cases, the tip of the iceberg so to speak. And even if this is not true, the perception is there. In my opinion, there is enough international concern about the virus that the number of cases published and information being given to the public is as accurate as it can be.
I will continue to update you on this subject.