U.N. investigates surge in Saudi MERS cases

The team is worried by a steep rise in cases of MERS, which has infected some 50 people in the Kingdom in February alone

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An international team of United Nations human and animal health experts has flown to the Kingdom to investigate a recent surge in cases of a deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) caused by coronavirus.

A spokeswoman of the World Health Organization-led team said it was worried by a steep rise in cases of MERS, which has infected some 50 people in the Kingdom in February alone — one of the highest monthly rates since it first emerged in humans in 2102.

“We are all very aware of this surge in cases,” said the WHO’s Fadela Chaib, one of an 11-strong international MERS expert team.

“Although this is still a small outbreak compared to last year, we still need to understand more about what is happening.”

MERS is a respiratory disease that causes coughing, fever and breathing problems, and can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure. Initial scientific studies have linked it to camels and it is known to have infected close to a thousand people, killing some 360 of them — the vast majority in Saudi Arabia.

Chaib said the international team — including experts from the WHO, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health — were talking to scientists and doctors, going to hospitals and visiting the government’s MERS command and control center (CCC).

Assistant Director-General of WHO for Health Security Affairs Dr. Keiji Fukuda has praised the level of the actions taken by the Ministry of Health in its fight against MERS.

“I noticed a significant improvement this year in addition to what has been done in the past at the level of addressing and dealing with the virus, especially in therapeutic, diagnostic and preventive services,” he said.

He said there is also a significant improvement that has been observed in this visit in several areas: the first is the establishment of an advanced center for monitoring and following-up cases under the name of the command and control center with sub-centers in 20 regions across the Kingdom; there are preparations for coronavirus diagnosis and analysis in the laboratories and strict preparations in infection control in hospitals.

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on Feb. 21, 2015.

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