MERS: GCC infectious disease security

Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik
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In the past few weeks, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is becoming an increasing threat to GCC National Health Security. MERS, apparently originating in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), is spreading rapidly to several continents around the globe.

Saudi Deputy Health Minister Ziad Memish has openly spoken about this potential crisis of MERS. Memish said that previous cases had been fought by placing the patient in ICU (intensive care unit) and in the haemo-dialysis unit. It is also important to separate patients and limit physical contact between subjects. At the same time, KSA is sending animal samples to the US for testing in a bid to test the virus and potentially create vaccines. Saudi Arabia, because of the King’s role as Custodian of the Holy Cities, is quite advanced in taking care of, and mitigating, any infection disease.

It is important to point out that KSA provides free healthcare to all pilgrims during the Hajj and also implements stringent infection control measures

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Infectious diseases or contagious diseases are indiscriminate, wildly uncontrollable and are able to independently evolve to counter efforts to suppress their effect. In recent years we have seen scores of outbreaks of H1N1 (Swine Flu), H7N9 (Avian Flu), Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) also known as Mad Cow Disease and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS), one of six new forms of viruses from the family of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Overall, International public-health officials say they are as concerned about the coronavirus as they are about the new H7N9 avian flu virus that recently began sickening people in eastern China. The flu has hit more people than the coronavirus.

Impact on GCC national security: The upcoming Hajj

All GCC states are now on the lookout for new outbreaks of MERS and have established the appropriate mechanisms in each country. As such it is critical to review Saudi Arabia’s Hajj health capabilities.

According to the CDC, the Hajj has become the epicenter of mass migration of millions of Muslims of enormous ethnic diversity. No other mass gathering can compare, either in scale or in regularity. Communicable disease outbreaks of various infectious diseases have been reported repeatedly, during and following the Hajj. Although several months away, Saudi officials are taking precautions concerning The Hajj through the Higher Hajj Committee under the Saudi Ministry of Interior. The annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is among the largest mass gatherings in the world. It draws about three million Muslims from around the world.

It is important to point out that KSA provides free healthcare to all pilgrims during the Hajj and also implements stringent infection control measures. The KSA Ministry of Health (MoH) prepares dozens of hospitals with a total bed capacity reaching over 5000 beds. Moreover, about 150 healthcare centers in the vicinity of the Hajj are equipped with the latest emergency management medical systems and staffed with nearly 20,000 specialized personnel to provide state of the art healthcare to all pilgrims free of charge.

Along the pilgrimage route, the primary medical centers of the MoH, the Saudi National Guard, the Internal Security Forces and the Ministry of Defense and Aviation, provide 24-hour free medical care.

Assisting in the Hajj planning and coordination are two dozen supervisory committees reporting to the Minister of Health. The preventive medicine committee is one of the committees which oversee all key public health and preventative matters during the Hajj. The committee supervises a large number of public health officers who control the ports of entry for all pilgrims (land, sea and airports) and ensure compliance with Saudi MoH requirements for performing Hajj. In addition at least 40 public health teams are distributed around where the Hajj takes place. These include at least two dozen stationary teams located in healthcare facilities and two dozen mobile teams which rotate through the different pilgrim camps.

The public health teams (stationary and mobile) as well as the ports of entry teams report directly to the command center on nine communicable diseases using an electronic surveillance form based on an updated disease case definition submitted via mobile phones. These diseases include influenza, influenza-like illness, meningococcal disease, food poisoning, viral hemorrhagic fevers, yellow fever, cholera, polio, and plague.

Overall, on-going disease surveillance and data analysis is necessary to better understand health risks and strengthen the evidence base for health policy and prevention. The battle against the spread of travel-related infections is a shared responsibility. Countries sending pilgrims should co-ordinate preventive measures by healthcare professionals and community groups and work closely with Saudi officials when engaging a possible pandemic from the MERS outbreak.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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