The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday the deadly MERS virus remains a serious public health problem, especially with the approach of haj pilgrimages. However, a recent surge in Saudi cases of the respiratory disease appears to be abating.
The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus, which causes coughing, fever and sometimes fatal pneumonia, has been reported in more than 800 patients, mainly in Saudi Arabia. It has spread to neighboring countries and, in a few cases, to Europe, Asia and the United States. At least 315 people worldwide have died from the disease.
In a statement issued after the 6th meeting of its MERS emergency committee, the WHO said a surge in cases in Saudi Arabia that began in April has now decreased and “there is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission in communities”.
“There have been significant efforts made to strengthen infection prevention and control measures,” it said. As a result, “the committee unanimously concluded that the conditions for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) have not yet been met.”
Global health regulations define a PHEIC as an extraordinary event that poses a risk to other WHO member states through the international spread of disease, and which may require a coordinated international response. The WHO stressed, however, that the MERS situation continued to be “of concern,” especially given an anticipated increase in travel to Saudi Arabia related to the pilgrimages and religious festivals of Umra, Ramadan and the haj.
The WHO’s assistant director general for health security, Keiji Fukuda, said the committee had urged vulnerable countries, especially those in Africa, to take concrete action ahead of Umra, Ramadan and haj with basic public health measures such as conducting surveillance for MERS, raising awareness about it, and implementing basic infection prevention and control measures.
Millions of people travel to Mecca each year for the haj, the pilgrimage which all Muslims must perform at least once in their lifetime, if they are able. This year’s will take place in October.
Report compiled with information from Reuters.