The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus and this year's Hajj
The Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) was first reported by a virologist (someone who studies viruses) in September 2012 in Saudi Arabia. The virologist isolated and identified a previously unknown coronavirus from the lungs of a 60 year old man. A coronavirus is a virus that infects the respiratory system of humans and animals.
The SARS outbreak in 2002 was believed to have been caused by a new type of coronavirus- it became a world epidemic, spreading to 32 countries and infecting 8500 people. Over 800 of these cases were fatal. Virologists have stated that MERS-CoV is not as easily transmitted, but is deadlier.
The MERS coronavirus has been speculated to have an animal origin, specifically in bats and camels. This is a possibility as there are several species of bats in the Arabian Peninsula, and camel meat is a very common part of Middle Eastern cuisine and cultural events. It has also been reasoned that bats transmitted this condition to camels, meaning MERS-CoV is a zoonotic illness (can be transmitted between species).
Most people who tested positive for the MERS-CoV infection developed severe acute respiratory illness- fever, cough, problems with breathing. All cases of this condition have lived in or travelled to the Middle East, or have had close contact with those who acquired the condition.
As of June, 2013, MERS-CoV has infected atleast 60 people with cases reported in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Tunisia, Germany, UK, France, and Italy. MERS-CoV has become an issue of great concern particularly in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi officials are concerned that when the Hajj occurs this autumn, millions of Muslims from all around the world may potentially be exposed to the virus from being in crowded streets around the Ka’aba. Hajj authorities have imposed a 20 percent cut this year on the number of pilgrims coming from abroad, and the number of domestic pilgrims has been reduced by half. Pilgrims have been advised to wear face masks. Authorities have expressed optimism that the Hajj will pass without incident.
A cure for MERS-CoV is yet to be found.