MERS is Abating, But Still Could Threaten Hajj

Jun 17, 2014 01:16 PM EDT

The World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak that has been ravaging Saudi Arabia is finally abating. However, this certainly doesn't mean the virus is no longer a threat.

During the sixth meeting of the Emergency Committee concerning the disease, which was held via teleconference on Tuesday, WHO experts reported that coronavirus variant MERS-CoV is no longer as prevalent as it was earlier this year in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is suspected to be the source of the viral outbreak, with more confirmed and suspected cases of MERS than any other country in the world. Past studies have revealed that the MERS virus likely originated from camels in the country, with recent scientific evidence proving that camel-to-human transmission of the virus is very possible.

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As of June 11, 699 laboratory-confirmed cases of the virus had been officially reported to the WHO, including more than 200 deaths - the majority of which occurred in Saudi Arabia.

A past five-day investigation conducted by the WHO back in early May revealed that the MERS virus had not become more contagious since it was first discovered in Saudi Arabia two years ago. Instead, a perfect storm of seasonal changes and neglect of recommended precautions led to a massive outbreak in the country that resulted in numerous imported cases in other countries around the globe.

Experts and WHO representatives alike reiterated this conclusion Tuesday, adding that "the upsurge in cases that began in April has now decreased and there is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission in communities."

This declaration follows an assessment of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), neighbors to Saudi Arabia and home to the second most MERS cases in the world. Experts have said that it is very likely that the coronavirus originated from here as well, but efforts to contain the outbreak have proven more successful.

On June 6, a collaboration of WHO scientists and technical partners from the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) reported the results of the five-day-long investigation into UAE cases.

WHO team leader Peter Ben Embarek concluded that the UAE had quickly and efficiently responded to the virus, amassing a significant amount of data on it.

"The UAE health authorities have been following up diligently on the MERS-CoV cases, including repeated laboratory testing to check when cases have been cleared of the virus," he said. "This data will make an important contribution to the risk assessment and to guide the health response internationally."

That risk assessment was also addressed during the Emergency Committee meeting, with experts concluding that MERS should not be considered a serious threat. However, WHO officials emphasized that this does not mean that efforts to understand how MERS spreads should stop.

With the upcoming Hajj this October - the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca - experts are worried about floods of people entering Saudi Arabia, the ground zero for the potentially fatal virus.

There is a "need to further analyze the hospital outbreaks to better understand where breaches in infection prevention and control are taking place," the committee said, arguing that hospital staff (who made up nearly 25 percent of all MERS cases in Saudi Arabia) still need to become better educated on how to prevent infection, especially when people gather en-masse.

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