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MERS is Not Becoming More Contagious, Says WHO

May 09, 2014 12:53 PM EDT
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The recent surge of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) cases that reportedly killed 126 people in Saudi Arabia alone may be nothing more than seasonal changes and neglect of recommended precautions, suggests investigators from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO recently sent out a team of experts to conduct a five day mission aimed at investigating the alarming increase in the number of MERS infections seen in Saudi Arabia. According to the team, Saudi Arabia has seen 489 cases of the potentially deadly viral infection, resulting in at least 126 deaths, as of May 3.

However, the team, who released the results of their investigation on Wednesday, reported that the virus does not appear to be becoming more contagious among humans.

"Current evidence does not suggest that a recent increase in numbers reflects a significant change in the transmissibility of the virus," the WHO said in a recent announcement.  "There is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission in the community and the transmission pattern [since 2012] overall remained unchanged."

According to the report, the investigative team focused primarily on the city of Jeddah, which was recently ground zero of one of Saudi Arabia's largest MERS outbreaks yet. Home to nearly 3,500,000 people, Jeddah is one of the largest cities in the country, second only to the capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh.

As nearly one fourth of all secondary MERS infections have been reported among healthcare workers, the investigators focused on interviewing patients and hospital staff from Jeddah's two largest hospitals.

According to the resulting report, while the exact way the virus spreads from human-to-human remains unknown, there appeared to be no change in how infectious the virus is since it was first discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

Instead, the experts suggest that the "upsurge in cases can be explained by an increase, possibly seasonal, in the number of primary cases amplified by several outbreaks in hospitals due to breaches in WHO's recommended infection prevention and control measures."

Based on these findings, and despite more and more reports of MERS cases resulting from international travel, the WHO is not recommending travel restrictions or any special screening processes.

This is good news for many Muslims, who are even now making plans to travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj -- the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca which is scheduled to take place in October. This annual pilgrimage results in the largest gathering of Muslim people in the world, and can be a particular nightmare for health officials worried about a spreading respiratory infection.

The results of the WHO investigation were detailed in a press release on May 7.

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