While our attentions are rightfully focused on the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, it wasn’t so many months ago when the MERS Coronavirus on the Arabian peninsula was dominating infectious disease headlines. Over the past couple of months, we’ve only seen a small trickle of cases reported, but as today’s report from the Saudi MOH shows – the virus hasn’t disappeared entirely.
Given that we are roughly 3 weeks away from the start of the annual Hajj, and three million religious pilgrims are expected to descend upon the Holy sites of Saudi Arabia during the first half of October, we are particularly wary of any uptick in MERS reports.
This year, in addition to concerns that they might export some MERS cases, Saudi officials are also worried that Ebola cases could arrive as pilgrims, and last month we saw the Gulf States Meet To Discuss Ebola Precautions For The Upcoming Hajj.
Last July, in EID Journal: Respiratory Viruses & Bacteria Among Pilgrims During The 2013 Hajj, we looked at the extraordinarily high percentage of Hajjis (approx. 80%) who leave Saudi Arabia with some type of respiratory infection. The vast majority of these respiratory infections were due to either rhinoviruses or influenza, with a smaller number of cases of pneumonia.
Whether or not MERS infections appear during the Hajj, public health agencies around the world are going to be taxed by the sheer volume of symptomatic (with `something’) travelers returning from the Middle East this fall.
Most (hopefully, all) will have something mundane, like seasonal influenza or the common cold, but the potential for seeing something more serious cannot be ignored.