Fears of coronavirus mount as pilgrimage to Mecca nears; The deadly Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS) has potential to cause pandemic: WHO

June 11, 2013 1:34 pm

Fears of coronavirus mount as pilgrimage to Mecca nears

By Michael Peel and Abeer Allam in Abu Dhabi and Andrew Jack in London

Global health experts have stepped up warnings to the more than a million foreign pilgrims on their way to Saudi Arabia of the risks there from a deadly Sars-like virusthat has killed more than 30 people worldwide.

As vast numbers of Saudi and non-Saudi Muslims prepare to travel to Mecca next month for the peak of the Umrah pilgrimage, public health officials fear the virus may be circulating more widely than thought.

The influx of visitors to Saudi Arabia increases the chances of both domestic and international transmission of the coronavirus dubbed Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which has killed more than 20 people in the kingdom.“The risk [to pilgrims] is there,” said Salman Rawaf, professor of public health at Imperial College, London. “The advice from the World Health Organisation is really: wear a mask.”

Health officials have called on countries to look out for signs of infection from the virus ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is an especially popular time for pilgrimages and is due to start around July 8.

Anthony Mounts, technical lead on MERS at the WHO, said information was being prepared for distribution to many thousands of Muslims travelling to Mecca, amid signs that some infections by the virus may not have been picked up.

One concern is that surveillance and diagnosis so far had focused on severe cases and thus had likely missed many milder cases, Mr Mounts said.

Another is that confirmed cases had been reported by travellers returning from the Middle East to European countries, yet none had been identified in the Gulf states where they had travelled. Nor have any cases been reported in Asian countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines, the home to many migrant workers in Saudi Arabia who travel back and forth.

While Mr Mounts said the Saudi Arabian authorities had developed strong systems to diagnose the virus, he warned that there were still gaps in understanding both its origin – currently thought to be bats – and means of transmission.

“They are sending more information than before,” he said. “But some things are just not available.”

Q&A: Coronavirus

What is MERS coronavirus?

Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS CoV) is a new but rare virus with a very high mortality rate that belongs to the same family as both the common cold and Sars – which killed about 800 people in a global epidemic in 2003. Since last autumn, it has infected at least 55 people, causing severe respiratory problems and killing 31. A recent resurgence in France and Saudi Arabia has caused the World Health Organisation to warn of an “increasing” risk of its spread.

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The cases in Saudi Arabia have so far been confined to an area close to the town of Hofuf in the al-Ahsa region in the east of the country, more than 1,000km away from Mecca in the west. But the large movement of Saudi pilgrims living in proximity during Ramadan, when the government forecasts more than 1m people will spend one or two days performing Umrah, could enable the disease to spread inside the country.

An al-Ahsa region resident said there was no sense of panic, as many people appeared to accept the official line that the virus was under control and was deadly only to those with pre-existing health problems.

“At this point it seems that people are taking the government’s word,” he said. “No one is wearing masks in gatherings or mosques, for example.”

The Saudi government has played down the seriousness of the virus and pointed to deaths from it in other states, such as Qatar, France and the UK. But Saudi Arabia accounts for a large majority of the fatal cases, while those who died in Europe had either been transferred there for treatment or had just visited the Middle East.

Riyadh has also deflected attention from the outbreak – and won some public support – by criticising the Egyptian doctor who sent a sample of the virus out of the Kingdom last year, allegedly giving foreign researchers the chance to privately develop and patent a treatment.

The Dutch and UK institutions that have been studying the virus contest this claim, saying they have shared their findings with public health officials from more than 40 countries.

MERS coronavirus has potential to cause pandemic: WHO

Tuesday, Jun 11, 2013
AFP

GENEVA – The World Health Organization on Monday urged health workers around the world to be on the alert for symptoms of the deadly Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS), which has the potential to circle the globe and cause a pandemic.

The United Nations agency, which issued new, long-awaited guidance to countries on influenza pandemics, said the world was also in the same “alert phase” for two human strains of bird flu – H5N1, which emerged a decade ago, and H7N9, first detected in China in March.

“We are trying to find out as much as we can and we are concerned about these (three) viruses,” Andrew Harper, WHO special adviser for health security and environment, told a news briefing on its new scale for pandemic risk.

The interim guidance, to be finalized later this year, incorporates lessons from the 2009/2010 pandemic of H1N1 swine flu, which caused an estimated 200,000 deaths, roughly in line with annual seasonal flu.

Having been adjusted to include the notion of severity when assessing risk, the new scale has just four phases against six previously and is intended to give countries more flexibility in judging local risks.

“International concern about these infections is high, because it is possible for this virus to move around the world. There have been now several examples where the virus has moved from one country to another through travelers,” the WHO said of MERS, which causes coughing, fever and pneumonia.

Travelers have carried the virus to Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Infected people have also been found in Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.

“Consequently, all countries in the world need to ensure that their healthcare workers are aware of the virus and the disease it can cause and that, when unexplained cases of pneumonia are identified, MERS-CoV should be considered.”

MERS-coronavirus, a distant relative of SARS that emerged in Saudi Arabia last year, has been confirmed in 55 people worldwide, killing 31 of them. Forty cases occurred in Saudi Arabia, many in a hospital in the eastern province of al-Ahsa.

“The overall number of cases is limited but the virus causes death in about 60 percent of patients,” the WHO said, reporting on a week-long mission of international experts to Saudi Arabia that ended on Sunday.

“So far, about 75 percent of the cases in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been in men and most have occurred in people with one or more major chronic conditions.”

But the source of the MERS virus remained unknown, it said.

Clusters of cases have occurred in families and health facilities, indicating a limited capacity to spread among people in close contact with an infected person, it said.

All countries in the Middle East should urgently intensify disease surveillance to detect any MERS infections, it said.

The WHO has not yet drawn up advice for Travelers ahead of the annual haj pilgrimage in October, which draws millions of Muslims to Saudi Arabia.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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