The U.N. urges Saudi Arabia to curb the spread of the virus. Mohamed Alhwaity/Reuters
The United Nations said on Monday that Saudi Arabia needs to do more to control an outbreak of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has infected 50 people in the kingdom this month alone.
“Critical gaps” in the knowledge of MERS also persist, such as exactly how people become infected and how to stop infection from spreading in health care facilities, a group of experts said, speaking in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh at the end of a mission to assess the response to the virus. The U.N. also said more needs to be done to understand the interaction of the virus between animals and humans and to engage local communities on how to prevent the disease spreading.
Since MERS was first identified in 2012, there have been 1,026 confirmed cases of the virus. 376 people have died and more than 85 percent of them have been from Saudi Arabia, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports.
The kingdom has seen a surge of MERS cases in recent weeks, WHO also said on Monday, with people being infected after visiting health care settings in Riyadh and Damman City.
“The fact that infections are still occurring in some health care settings but not in others indicates that current infection control measures are effective but not implemented,” said WHO.
While a number of studies have suggested a transmission link between humans and camels and WHO suggests that high-risk people with certain chronic illnesses avoid contact with camels, exactly how infections start and spread remains unclear. MERS can cause fever, diarrhea and breathing problems and lead to pneumonia and death.
There is “no evidence of human to human interaction” in the spread of the disease, according to WHO.
MERS is a coronavirus, a virus that infects people and animals and causes mild to moderate respiratory illnesses. A 2003 outbreak of another coronavirus, Severe acute respiratory syndrome, sparked a global health panic when it killed 774 people and infected over 8,000 people worldwide.
WHO has stressed that while the two diseases are related, they are distinctly different. In 2013, WHO said MERS mainly affected older men with existing medical conditions and those with diabetes, lung complications and immune system disorders are considered at high-risk for the disease.
Other countries in the region, including Lebanon, Iran and Qatar have confirmed cases of MERS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. France, the United States and the United Kingdom are among the countries that have reported travel-associated cases of MERS.
Representatives from WHO, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization for Animal Health and France’s Institut Pasteur visited Saudi Arabia this month and made recommendations for the prevention and control of the virus, as well as improving MERS surveillance.
Ahmed Bin Aqeel Al-Khateeb, the Saudi Arabian health minister, said in a statement on Monday that the kingdom has done “a lot” to control the virus.
“We want to hear WHO experts’ feedback on the kingdom’s progress but also where we can improve. The government is fully committed to implementing the right control and prevention measures and also to funding any activities needed to control this disease,” he said.