Daily News header

Mecca and MERS - Pandemic in The Making?


This week approximately two million Muslims from around the world are making the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which is the greatest religious observances in Islam. The annual Hajj is the largest gathering of Muslim people in the world, and according to the Saudi Embassy, "Muslim pilgrims have made their way to Mecca every year for 14 centuries."

Undertaking the Hajj at least once is a duty for Muslims who are physically and financially able to make the journey. The emphasis on "financial ability" is meant to ensure that a Muslim takes care of his "family first." The requirement that a Muslim be "healthy and physically capable" of undertaking the pilgrimage is intended to exempt those who cannot endure the rigors of extended travel.

More than 2 million Muslims from more than 183 countries make Hajj each year (2.5 million in 2009). At least 11,000 of of the Hajj travelers will be from the United States. This year, more than any other year, Saudi Arabia is telling people who are ill to say home. Also, they have asked that the elderly over 65, women who are pregnant and children under 12 years old to take a pass on the pilgrimage this year. This is because Saudi Arabia is taking pre-emptive measures to prevent spreading of the MERS-CoV during the Holy week.

What is MERS-CoV?

MERS-CoV or MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus) a new coronavirus strain (in the SARS family) that appeared last year. MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012 when a man came down with "SARS-like" symptoms. He died in June 2012. In Saudi Arabia alone, 51 people have died and 119 have fallen ill so far this year.

The World Health Organization has warned that although MERS is now considered a regional virus in places like Saudi Arabia, it definitely has the potential to cause a pandemic. "To date, it's been seen mostly in Saudi Arabia, centered around Riyadh, but has spread to France, Germany, Britain, Italy, UAE, Tunisia, Jordan, Qatar, and other countries."

How is Mers-CoV Transmitted to Humans?

It appears to be unclear how MERS infects humans which makes it a silent and deadly killer. If the people who fall ill don't get treatment in time, if they assume they only have a bad case of the flu - it will be too late.

Virus experts say they've linked MERS to bats, but say it's unlikely bats are directly infecting people. Another animal may be involved. In Saudi Arabia, some researchers are starting to point their finger at camels as the intermediary transmitter between the bats to the humans.

Camel Market 1970, in Jubail, on the east coast of Saudi Arabia
Camel Market 1970, in Jubail, on the east coast of Saudi Arabia
Photo: Kimberly Jones

MERS researchers have some evidence that also links this virus to camels; however, they have not discovered live virus in a camel yet. What they have found is anti-bodies in camels from Sudan, Egypt, Oman and the Canary Island that indicate the camels have recovered from MERS or a close relative. This does not make the camel an instigator in the transmission of MERS.

There have been a few camel stories being spread around about the camels involvement that do need to be considered:

  • According to Asharq Al-Awsat, a 38-year-old man from Batin, Saudi Arabia, who died of what was diagnosed as bacterial pneumonia was a camel dealer with at least one sick camel. Later other members of his family fell ill and two died, all diagnosed with MERS. The World Health Organization identified them as members of a MERS cluster. No specific evidence that the camel was at fault.

  • In April, Science Magazine reported a wealthy 73-year-old man from Abu Dhabi fell ill after contact with a sick racing camel in his stable. He went to Germany for treatment, but still died. After his death, doctors there said they had been told that his brother had also fallen ill after contact with the camel.

  • The first confirmed MERS victim was an owner of a paint warehouse in Bisha, Saudi Arabia, according to the New York Times. He was the owner of four pet camels, according Dr. Lipkin, a virologist at Columbia University who took blood samples from the camels.
  • The World Health Organization has said "emergence of the MERS-CoV has created a difficult situation for affected countries as well as the global community at large. On the one hand, the number of affected countries, especially those with community-acquired cases, is limited. On the other hand, this infection is associated with a high case fatality rate, has demonstrated its ability to persist over time, has caused community acquired diseases in multiple locations, and can be transmitted from person to person in certain circumstances."

    The Kaaba, in Mecca, 1910
    The Kaaba, in Mecca, 1910
    Photo: Wikkimedia Commons

    Saudi Preparations

    mecca kaaba view
    A view across Mecca, towards the Kaaba, with the massive Abraj Al-Bait Towers, known as the The Mecca Royal Clock Hotel Tower on the right.
    Photo: Michael Crocker

    The Saudi Government prepared well for this year's Hajj. King Abdullah appointed Crown Prince Salman to oversee Hajj and care for the pilgrims. The Saudi Interior Minister announced, "Saudi Arabia has deployed 95,000 security forces to maintain order during this year's Hajj, adding that these troops will be augmented by additional forces from the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of the National Guard, and the Presidency of the General Intelligence. We have confidence in the citizens and expatriates in the Kingdom to take the exceptional circumstances during this Hajj season into consideration, committing to Hajj regulations, and gaining the required permits needed for those who want to perform Hajj rituals."

    In addition to these security measures, authorities in the kingdom have mobilized health services in Mecca and the holy sites which together have 25 public hospitals with 5,250 beds and hundreds of scattered medical centres.

    With all the efforts that the Saudi Government has taken, we can only hope that MERS will not take this opportunity to turn pandemic.

    Kimberly Jones is a global nomad who writes about international issues, however, she has a special interest in Middle East and North Africa affairs. Read more stories by Kimberly Jones.

      Please leave a comment here     If it does not display within 10 seconds, please refresh the page

    Related Health News News

    The deadline for the realization of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by countries of the world is drawing to a close in 2015. The progress on MDGs might have been with mixed results, but lot of lessons need to be learnt while we frame n
    In the year 2000, countries of the world had agreed to meet the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Numerous consultative processes have been taking place around the world on what should be the development goals post-2015.
    Martha Rosenberg investigates a proposal that people watch the animals they eat being killed. Some say it encourages insensitivity and lack of empathy for suffering.
    The first estimates of the global burden of TB in children given by the WHO in 2012, suggested that there might be 530,000 children suffering from it. Subsequently there has been an uptake in the research in this field.
    We know that nearly one third of the 35 million people living with HIV (PLHIV) have tuberculosis (TB), and 13% of 8.6 million new TB cases every year are HIV positive. Also 1 in 5 HIV associated deaths are due to TB.
    Ebola is big news in the U.S. just now because two infected missionary aid workers were brought to Atlanta for treatment and to study the disease. But it is not NEW to Africa. Ebola is very deadly; however, it is just another virus infection.


    NewsBlaze Writers Of The Month

    Popular Stories This Month

    newsletter logo

    Copyright © 2004-2014 NewsBlaze Pty. Ltd.
    Use of this website is subject to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy  | DMCA Notice               Press Room   |    Visit NewsBlaze Mobile Site