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WHO: Deadly MERS Virus Very Serious, but Not Emergency

  • Lisa Schlein

Muslim pilgrims wears surgical masks to help prevent infection from a respiratory virus known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May 13, 2014.

Muslim pilgrims wears surgical masks to help prevent infection from a respiratory virus known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May 13, 2014.

The World Health Organization says the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus is of serious concern, but falls short of being a public health emergency.

The virus, which causes coughing, fever and sometimes fatal pneumonia, has been reported in more than 500 patients, mainly in Saudi Arabia, and has spread to neighboring countries, as well as in a few cases to Europe, Asia and the United States. It kills about 30 percent of those who are infected.

A WHO emergency committee agrees the sharp rise in the number of MERS cases since March is of serious concern. WHO Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda said the committee reviewed the available information, though, and decided the virus does not constitute a public health emergency.

“We see more cases, but we do not see increased evidence for person-to-person transmissibility. And so, that was the major reason for why they said we do not think this meets a public health emergency of international concern right now," said Fukuda.

Most recent cases of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus have occurred in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A majority of those infected were in hospitals.

A World Health Organization mission recently visited hospitals in Saudi Arabia and found care practices in many facilities were sub-standard, with overcrowding in emergency rooms. It says these factors can lead to more infections.

The committee recommends urgent prevention and control practices, and more studies to identify risk factors to help combat the spread of the disease.

It also urges people who are going to mass gatherings, such as the Haj in Mecca be made aware of the risks and of what they can do to protect themselves from getting MERS.

Another recommendation is to support vulnerable countries. Fukuda says sub-Saharan Africa is especially vulnerable.

“We know, in many of those countries the level of surveillance is relatively low. And, these are countries for whom some of those basic capacities are lower than they are in a number of other countries. But, also these are countries in which you will have many pilgrims going to Saudi Arabia. So, there are a combination of factors there," he said.

Among the 500 confirmed MERS cases, a handful have been found in Asia, Europe and the United States. All the infections are among people who contracted the infection in the Middle East. Fukuda said there is no evidence these infections have led to sustained transmission.

International fear about the new virus has grown in recent weeks with a surge in cases detected in Saudi Arabia, where 495 people have been infected - 152 of whom have died - since the virus first emerged in 2012.

Scores of other MERS cases have also been detected in other countries throughout the Middle East region, and there have been at least eight cases imported into seven further countries, including Malaysia, Lebanon and the United States.

Dutch health authorities said on Wednesday that a man returning to the Netherlands from Saudi Arabia had been admitted to hospital there with MERS.

Saudi Arabia, which has been at the epicenter of the MERS outbreak since the virus was first identified in September 2012, has been criticized by the WHO for failing to implement basic hygiene and infection control measures in hospitals - allowing the virus to spread in clusters of health workers.