The global number of infections with the deadly MERS virus has risen to 136, after hard-hit Saudi Arabia confirmed six new cases, the World Health Organization said Friday.
Glenn Thomas, spokesman for the UN health agency, said it had been informed by Saudi authorities that the virus had been detected in three men and three women in Riyadh, according to AFP.
The virus, which appeared first in the Kingdom last year, has killed 58 people worldwide, 49 of them in Saudi Arabia, according to official Saudi figures and the World Health Organization (WHO).
MERS stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, in a nod to the fact that the bulk of the cases have been in that region.
The fact that Saudi Arabia accounts for the overwhelming majority of cases and deaths has raised concerns about this month’s annual Haj pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah.
The Haj is one of the largest gatherings in the world, and there are fears that pilgrims could carry the virus back to their homelands.
But Saudi authorities have said they are optimistic that Haj will pass off without outbreaks, given that faithful Muslims undertake lower-level pilgrimages at other times and there has been no mass spread of MERS. Saudi Arabia has, however, urged the elderly and chronically ill to avoid the event.Maybe I'm insulated by my Stark Insensibility, but I share the authorities' optimism. Their refusal to share all their MERS information is especially maddening because in mass-gathering medicine, the Saudis clearly know what they're doing.
They have had H5N1 poultry outbreaks, but no human cases. I don't think they had a single SARS case, and the Hajj was not an issue in the H1N1 pandemic. Yes, the pilgrims tend to leave the Kingdom with a lot of colds and flu, but nothing too critical.
So a report like this, intended mostly for non-Saudi readers, looks like hedging against an unwelcome and unlikely surprise.
And that makes me wonder: What's got them spooked about MERS? Dr. Ziad Memish and his colleagues are clearly highly competent professionals. They could simply invoke their admirable record in public health, tell us everything they know, and enjoy the grateful thanks of the global-health community.
Instead, they release confusing bits and scraps of information, leaving us to wonder what the hell is going on. As crisis communications, their policy leaves a lot to be desired.