Via The New York Times: Flawed Saudi Response Fueled Outbreak of MERS, Middle East Virus. Excerpt:
MERS circulates most heavily in a region that is the nexus for Islam. This port city, Jidda, is the arrival point for most of the two to three million pilgrims who make the hajj to Mecca each year. Riyadh, the Saudi capital, has had the second-largest outbreak after Jidda, and cases have also appeared in Mecca.
The hajj will not take place until October, but many Muslims travel to Mecca during the holy month of Ramadan, which most Muslims began observing on Sunday. And off-season pilgrims have already spread the disease to Iran, Jordan and Algeria.
Saudi officials know how urgently they need to beat the disease, and they say they now have the latest outbreak under control. But the fact that the number of cases and deaths have more than tripled since the end of 2013 has led health experts to cite grave flaws in the way this ultraconservative and staunchly private monarchy has handled the crisis.
King Abdullah fired the country’s health minister and his deputy in April, leaving experts wondering whether the shake-up would bring greater transparency and international cooperation.
“In the U.S., when you have a crisis like the Veterans Administration scandal, the new head is in front of the TV cameras explaining what the new plan is,” said Dr. Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a veterinary organization that tracked the disease in animals. “There is no tradition of openness in Saudi Arabia.”
A World Health Organization panel said this month that the surge in cases that began in April had fallen off, but that “the situation remains serious” and that hospital outbreaks should be investigated for breaches in safety protocols.
“I am not saying we’re not worried, but this is something that can be controlled,” said Hanan Balkhy, executive director for infection prevention and control at Saudi Arabia’s National Guard hospitals. “If this were Ebola, I would go the king myself and tell him, ‘We need to isolate the kingdom.’ ”