CAIRO, EGYPT— A spike in the cases of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in Saudi Arabia has alarmed international health officials. But regionally, authorities are offering few preventative measures for the MERS virus.
Saudi Arabia announced two more MERS-related deaths and two new infections Thursday, one day after the World Health Organization renewed concerns about the dramatic jump in the number of victims in recent days.
Health ministries from Saudi Arabia to Egypt have tried to downplay the threat of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
The coronavirus, which proves fatal to about one-third of its victims, first appeared in Saudi Arabia two years ago. Saudi officials report nearly 300 people have come down with the disease's pneumonia-like symptoms since then. More than 50 of those cases have been reported in the past week.
Regional authorities there say there is no cause for alarm or need to impose preventative measures such as travel restrictions.
Doctor Amr Kandeel, chief of Egypt’s Health Ministry’s Preventative Sector, says his agency has set up screening sites across the country to check suspected cases.
“The total sample examined from human cases is about 8,500 cases, and all these samples were negative to the virus corona," said Kandeel.
But Kandeel said the probability for a MERS outbreak remains, given frequent travel by Egyptians to Saudi Arabia’s religious sites and workers throughout the region.
He also notes the virus is present in some Egyptian camels.
The disease, believed to have crossed over to humans from camels, first appeared only to be passed through close contact with the animals. But recently, health workers treating people with MERS have themselves fallen ill.
Cases tied to human-to-human contact have also spread to other parts of the Gulf and as far afield as Europe and Malaysia, raising concerns the virus may be either reaching a tipping point or mutating.
Part of the lack of urgency on prevention may be tied to “virus-fatigue” — scares tied to other viruses, including avian flu, which did not live up to warnings they could mutate into more transmissible form.
Much remains unknown about Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Earlier this week, Saudi Health Minister Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Rabia conceded as much, even while arguing against the need for aggressive preventative measures.
“Hopefully we will reach to an idea to why the surge is in April and May," said al-Rabia. "Could it be that this season is the best for the virus? I have no idea.”
The next day, the minister was replaced. No reason was given, but with Saudi Arabia expecting millions of visitors in the coming months — during Ramadan in July and the Hajj in October — it is a possible sign the threat is being taken more seriously.