Anxiety as cases of deadly MERS rise in Saudi Arabia

SHAFAQNA - There is growing apprehension over the health of more than two million pilgrims participating in this year’s Hajj as the Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry announced six new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)-CoV cases in three different parts of the country.

A total of 76,000 Nigerians are expected to perform the spiritual exercise this year. More than 40,000 pilgrims from Nigeria are already in Saudi Arabia.

However, National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) through the Commissioner-in-charge of Health, Dr. Ibrahim Kana, has assured that adequate measures are being taken to protect Nigerian pilgrims.

Kana, who spoke with The Guardian yesterday, listed the measures to include increased awareness among pilgrims, setting up of surveillance unit that is working with Saudi Arabia officials, and warning that Nigerian pilgrims should avoid eating camel meat while in the holy land.

Other measures, according to him, are screening of all pilgrims at the point of departure to prevent export of virus to Nigeria, while any pilgrim infected has been assured of full care, just as any Nigerian pilgrim that develops symptoms such as severe cough, severe catarrh and fever has been directed to quickly report to the Nigeria Medical Team.

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a viral respiratory illness that is new to humans. It was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread to several other countries, including the United States.

Most people infected with MERS-CoV developed severe acute respiratory illness, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Many of them have died. Other countries that have recorded cases of the virus are Jordan, Republic of Korea, Philippines, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) in its emergency committee’s latest threat assessment raised the alarm in view of the September 22, 2015 start of the Hajj exercise in Saudi Arabia.

WHO said the outbreak so close to the Hajj raises the threat of pilgrims bringing the virus back to their respective home countries, some of which have weak surveillance and health systems. “The recent outbreak in the Republic of Korea demonstrated that when the MERS virus appears in a new setting, there is great potential for widespread transmission and severe disruption to the health system and to society,” the statement added.

Based on the current situation and available information, WHO encouraged all member states to continue their surveillance for acute respiratory infections and to carefully review any unusual patterns.

It stated: “Infection prevention and control measures are critical to prevent the possible spread of MERS-CoV in health care facilities.

It is not always possible to identify patients with MERS-CoV early because, like other respiratory infections, the early symptoms of MERS-CoV are non-specific.

Therefore, health-care workers should always apply standard precautions consistently with all patients, regardless of their diagnosis. “Droplet precautions should be added to the standard precautions when providing care to patients with symptoms of acute respiratory infection; contact precautions and eye protection should be added when caring for probable or confirmed cases of MERS-CoV infection; airborne precautions should be applied when performing aerosol generating procedures. “Until more is understood about MERS-CoV, people with diabetes, renal failure, chronic lung disease, and immune-compromised persons are considered to be at high risk of severe disease from MERS-CoV infection.

Therefore, these people should avoid close contact with animals, particularly camels, when visiting farms, markets, or barn areas where the virus is known to be potentially circulating.

General hygiene measures, such as regular hand washing before and after touching animals and avoiding contact with sick animals, should be adhered to. “Food hygiene practices should be observed. People should avoid drinking raw camel milk or camel urine, or eating meat that has not been properly cooked. “WHO remains vigilant and is monitoring the situation.

Given the lack of evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission in the community, WHO does not recommend travel or trade restrictions with regard to this event. Raising awareness about MERS-CoV among travellers to and from affected countries is good public health practice,” it stated.

Information from the Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health showed that the country has recorded a total of 1,205 cases, out of which 614 have recovered; 65 are active and 13 are on home isolation, while about 513 are dead so far.

Saudi Arabian health officials have reportedly announced a plan to compensate all families of people who died from MERS-CoV in the country. At a media briefing to unveil the plan, ministry officials said a royal decree has been issued to pay the compensation, which amounts to $133,300 per family.

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