Saudi MERS count grows by 6 as WHO experts arrive

Mecca Gate in Jeddah
Mecca Gate in Jeddah

The Mecca Gate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's second-largest city and current MERS hot spot., Callan Emery / iStockphoto

Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Health (MOH) today announced six more Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) cases, along with three deaths in previous cases, as outbreak response efforts advanced, including the arrival of an expert team from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the WHO, said eight members of the expert group are on the ground in Saudi Arabia after being invited by the MOH, with one more expected to arrive tomorrow. He said WHO officials have been in the country on several occasions during the outbreak.

The arrival of the WHO team follows an Apr 23 statement from its Eastern Mediterranean regional office raising concerns about a surge of cases in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and offering to gather international experts to help the countries investigate the outbreaks.

"This is part of normal cooperation," Jasarevic said. He said WHO officials have been in the country on several occasions during the outbreak.

Six infections, three more deaths

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia reported six new MERS-CoV infections from four different locations in the country, along with three more deaths in previously reported cases. The new cases come after a 1-day pause in a dramatic surge of new cases in the country, many of them connected to hospital-linked outbreaks in Jeddah and Riyadh.

The MOH, which recently started sharing more detailed information about the cases, quickly posted a version of the announcement in English today, along with—for the first time—a map showing the locations of the latest detections and several graphs.

Four of the new cases are from Jeddah (3) and Riyadh (1). Single cases were also reported in Mecca and Tabuk, locations that have also reported recent cases.

All of the patients are adults, ranging in age from 18 to 65. Four are asymptomatic, and two are hospitalized in stable condition.

Five patients had been in contact with a confirmed case, and no exposure to camels or animal environments were noted for any of them. Illness onsets for the two patients reported as symptomatic were Apr 22 and Apr 23.

The deaths in the three previously announced case-patients are all involve men from Riyadh, ages 56, 61, and 79.

Today's announcement boosts the number of MERS-CoV cases in Saudi Arabia to 345, including 105 deaths.

Saudi, UAE response steps

In other developments, outbreak response activities ramped up in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to media reports. Saudi Arabia's education ministry today said it will ask the country's 34,000 schools to set aside quarantine rooms for suspected MERS patients, Arab News reported.

The rooms will be stocked with thermometers and protective equipment such as gloves and masks. The school-based response plan would teach instructors and school staff how to identify symptoms and respond to suspected cases, according to the report.

Arabic media outlets also carried stories of a press briefing today, in which Saudi Arabia's new acting health minister urged citizens to take precautions around camels, including avoiding camel meat and camel milk. According to an Al-Riyadh story translated and posted by the H5N1 blog, the health ministry is also urging older people, especially those over age 65, to postpone making Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages.

In the UAE, the Abu Dhabi Health Authority today released updated guidance for the public on preventing the spread of MERS-CoV, Emirates 24/7 News reported. It urged people to, for example, eat well-cooked meat, heat unpasteurized milk to 70°C (158°F), and follow basic hygiene. It also advised people who will be traveling to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj or Umrah later this year to wear masks.

Worries postpone medical conference

Concerns over the sudden, steep increase in MERS-CoV cases in Saudi Arabia has also triggered the postponement of a medical conference in Riyadh, according to a letter today to members of the Saudi Arabian chapter of the American College of Physicians (ACP).

The college said its upcoming chapter meeting, originally slated for May 11 and May 12, will be rescheduled for later this year, with a new date announced later in May. The ACP, an internist organization, said the outbreak in Saudi Arabia could be a threat to the group's leaders, faculty, sponsors, and delegates.

See also:

Apr 28 Saudi Arabia health ministry press release on new cases

Apr 29 Arab News story

Apr 29 Emirates 24/7 story

Apr 29 H5N1 blog post

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