The auspicious completion of Hajj on Monday may mark the ominous beginning of the spread of a new fatal virus, experts warn.
The Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in the world has caused serious alarm in Pakistan, said Dr Muhammad Najeeb Khan Durrani, the Surveillance Coordinator Communicable Diseases, Islamabad. Authorities are concerned about the 100,000 Hajj pilgrims who stand most vulnerable to the new virus, he explained.
An outbreak of the MERS-CoV was first reported in Saudi Arabia last year. With the death of over 38 people out of the 78 cases in Saudi Arabia during recent months, officials have already begun alerting and training employees at government-run hospitals in Islamabad, said Dr Durrani who is also a member of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network.
A total of 104 MERS-CoV cases have so far been reported in United Kingdom, France, Italy, Jordon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and United Arab Emirates, out of which 49 people have died.
Two people each died in France, Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, and the UAE, while three people each lost their lives in United Kingdom and Italy. One of those killed in Britain fell ill after travelling to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
MERS-CoV acts like a cold virus and attacks the respiratory system, which can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure, according to the US-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. However, officials do not know much about how the newly discovered MERS-Cov spreads, which makes it extremely difficult to take prevention measures.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is coordinating the global response to this emerging virus, adhering to the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005).
According to a press release sent by the WHO, it is important for countries including Pakistan to use all practical and effective means possible to disseminate information on a range of issues during and after Hajj to all, including Umra and Hajj pilgrims as well as public health officials.
Healthcare staff responsible for the care of ill pilgrims, public transportation and tourism industries, and the general public should also be informed about the risk and threats of the MERS-CoV, it added.
WHO directed that the returning pilgrims should be advised to immediately notify their local health authority if they develop a significant acute respiratory illness with fever and cough within two weeks of their return.
Persons who have had close contact with a pilgrim or traveller with a significant acute respiratory illness with fever and cough must ask local health authorities to test them for MERS-CoV, the UN health organisation emphasised.
In addition, the WHO advises healthcare providers in the region to also “remain vigilant” of those patients who develop Severe Acute Respiratory Infections (SARI) and all recent travellers returning from the Middle East who develop SARI should also be tested for MERS-CoV.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 14th, 2013.