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Dealing with MERS outbreak requires firm measures

When signs of an epidemic appear, people have the right to know what's happening in the utmost transparency. This is a life or death issue.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Published: Updated:

When signs of an epidemic appear, people have the right to know what's happening in the utmost transparency. This is a life or death issue. Empty reassurances and procrastination are useless and ignoring the matter is the worst approach because it spreads rumors, fear and anger.

Above all, there is a complete official responsibility for the safety of people in terms of disease prevention and treatment. Even more, the government assumes the international responsibility of making sure the virus does not spread beyond its borders. It's not responsible only for its citizens and the issue is a very serious one at various levels.

MERS coronavirus is an epidemic we only first heard about less than two years ago. At first, we thought it was the Chinese SARS. Then, we were told it was a more dangerous version because it is easily transmitted via breathing and was named a "respiratory syndrome." What recently increased fears is the sudden rise of people infected. Saudi Arabia has had 244 cases of the virus, 18 of which led to death.

Uncertain origins

Worry also increased following conflicting statements about the source of the virus, which many said was camels. Al-Eqtisadiah daily quoted a World Health Organization source as saying that there's a possibility "of the transfer of the MERS coronavirus via camel milk or via direct contact with camels."

The health ministry's problem is not only curbing the epidemic and preventing it but also repairing relations, reputation and credibility which are important to prevent people from panicking and help them properly deal with the epidemic.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Authorities rushed to deny this, based on the excuse that there isn’t any scientific evidence yet to prove it. However, this is not enough to reassure the people. Will health authorities bear responsibility tomorrow if it's proven that the virus is transferred from camels? What good would assuming a responsibility do after the epidemic spreads and kills more people?

The health ministry, which didn't deny or confirm that camels are the source of the virus, must be clear because the anger of camel traders is not equivalent to a human's life.

Following a precedent

The world has previously witnessed similar periods of fear as there were cases of diseases linked to cows, pigs, and chicken. And we may now be confronting a case linked to camels. World governments took precautionary measures such as banning imports and citizens from certain countries from visiting for a specific duration of time.

Furthermore, all animals suspected to be in an infected area were exterminated. This is also what happened to cows when countries were facing mad cow disease and later repeated when the swine flu spread, causing millions of pigs to be slaughtered. Similar measures were taken to confront the bird flu and other diseases.

The situation is not very different than the one now with camels, unless medical authorities are completely sure that they have nothing to do with the sudden boom of the virus which is now scaring the world.

The health ministry's problem is not only curbing the epidemic and preventing it but also repairing relations, reputation and credibility which are important to prevent people from panicking and help them properly deal with the epidemic.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on April 22, 2014.

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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.


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