In October, Saudi Arabia hosts what is the world’s largest annual gathering of people, when Muslims from around the world come to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to worship.
The Saudi Health Ministry did not immediately respond to emails, phone calls and text messages this week and last seeking a briefing on the kingdom’s MERS preparations for the hajj or answers to questions on the outbreak.
In his recorded briefing Friday at the University of Florida College of Public Health, the Saudi health official [Dr. Ziad Memish] said that the kingdom had recommended, but not ordered, that children, the elderly, the ill, and some others forgo the hajj this year, because of the virus.
International health officials meeting under the auspices of the WHO in July ruled that MERS so far did not represent a public-health emergency.
Saudi Arabia is continuing extensive testing for the virus, Dr. Memish said in Friday’s speech. The kingdom annually mounts massive programs to care for the hajj influx, including what this year will be 20,000 health professionals on hand to deal with any health emergencies among pilgrims, he said.
Saudi news media – whose coverage is closely influenced by the government – early in the course of the new disease played down the MERS virus, reporting even after medical authorities had said otherwise that it did not spread from person to person, for example.
The Saudi Ministry of Health this summer dedicated a section of its website to briefing on the virus and current cases and deaths. Saudi newspapers began more prominently running stories on fatalities and cases, using the health department releases.
In interviews during the outbreak, Western experts in infectious diseases have said that media reports of Saudi Arabia deliberately withholding information from the international community on MERS are overblown.
The kingdom still should be doing more to get more details out to medical professionals, more quickly, said Dr. Ian M. Mackay, an infectious disease expert at the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Center at Australia’s University of Queensland.
“While we have seen very detailed reports in scientific journals, these are not up-to-the-minute, and not suitable as the only flow of public health information,” Dr. Mackay, who tracks MERS reporting in his medical blog, said in an e-mail Monday. “A more rapid information flow is required.”