With MERS threat, Morocco advises against Hajj

Morocco's health minister has advised Muslims in his country not to go on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia this year, given the threat of MERS-CoV, according to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report today.

The minister, Lahoucine Louardi, issued the advice yesterday, the same day the World Health Organization (WHO) said MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) remains a serious concern, particularly in view of the large number of pilgrims expected to go to Saudi Arabia this summer and fall, AFP reported. WHO experts said the disease is not an international health emergency, however.

Last week the Moroccan health ministry advised the sick and the frail to postpone trips to Saudi Arabia, the story said. But yesterday in a speech to parliament, Louardi broadened the warning, saying, "We advise pilgrims not to travel to the Holy Sites." A source at the health ministry confirmed the recommendation.

Louardi said he decided to make the recommendation after consulting with several parties, including the WHO and Arab health ministers, AFP reported. The story said Morocco has a 2014 quota of 25,600 pilgrims to Saudi Arabia.

The WHO does not currently call for any travel restrictions related to MERS-CoV. But the agency says that those who have preexisting medical conditions should consult a healthcare provider before going on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, given the risk of severe illness if they contract the virus.

Indonesian pilgrim said to be infected

In other developments, Indonesia's health ministry said that an Indonesian man who is on an Umrah pilgrimage has tested positive for MERS-CoV in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, according to a report today from Indonesia's Antara news agency.

A health ministry spokesman said the man must be treated in an Abu Dhabi hospital and will not be allowed to return to his homeland while ill, the story said. No other details about the case were provided.

No confirmed MERS cases have been reported in Indonesia to date.

The ministry spokesman also said 169 people in Indonesia have been tested for suspected MERS, of whom 161 have tested negative, while results are still awaited for the other 8, according to Antara.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia reported no new MERS cases today, though one previously reported case-patient has died of his infection. The patient was a 42-year-old male expatriate in Mecca, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said.

The MOH's MERS case count stayed at 704, while the death toll rose to 290.

Nature calls for better response

Also today, the journal Nature published an editorial arguing that too little is being done to control MERS-CoV. Echoing a point that has been made before, the editors assert that the response to MERS has been far inferior to the "tightly coordinated" international response in 2003 to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which was also caused by a coronavirus.

With MERS, "research groups have tended to compete rather than cooperate," and the WHO has been "much less prominent and decisive on MERS-CoV than it was on SARS," the editorial says.

"What is most lacking in the fight against MERS-CoV is global leadership," the editors assert. "The WHO, as an intergovernmental agency with a direct line to health ministries, remains best placed to bang heads together and get things done cooperatively, but its efforts must be well funded and staffed.

"Politicians everywhere must wake up to the fact that the world has another Middle East problem."

See also:

Jun 18 AFP story

WHO advice for pilgrims to Saudi Arabia

Jun 18 Antara story

Jun 18 Saudi MOH statement

Jun 18 Nature editorial

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