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Jeddah jittery over MERS

JEDDAH, April 24, (Agencies): The first paper face masks appeared at check-in before the early morning flight from Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh to Jeddah, where a sudden surge of infections of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has alarmed some residents. In Jeddah airport, a Makkah-bound pilgrim with religiously prescribed white toga and shaven head wore a mask under a pair of designer sunglasses. On a nearby bench, a mother adjusted masks on two small boys.

It was a sign of the alarm in this humid Red Sea city after a 47 percent jump in the past month in the number of confirmed cases of MERS, a virus identified in Saudi Arabia two years ago and which can cause coughing, fever and pneumonia. Of the 91 new cases announced in the kingdom in April, 73 were in Jeddah.

Many of those infected were healthcare workers. “Everyone I know, my friends, neighbours, relatives, it’s like we were on the dark side,” said Lamya Gazzaz, a former nurse and longtime Jeddah resident, speaking of the early days of the outbreak when rumours swirled around the city. “There was lots of confusion. Relatives kept their children at home. People were worried about going to hospitals for their appointments,” she added. Another Jeddah resident, 35-year-old Roula, who did not want to give her family name, said many of her friends were scared. “My friend’s uncle died two days ago after going to a hospital. I didn’t even go to the funeral because I’m worried they might be carrying the virus.

Everyone who did go wore a mask,” she said. Public concern has been heightened by the spread of rumours on social media that there were many undiagnosed cases, as well as accusations of government coverups and inadequate hygiene procedures in some hospitals. The Health Ministry has denied such charges. But the authorities struggled in the early stages of the outbreak to gain control of the public message, simply issuing stern warnings against the spreading of rumours.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says it is “concerned” and has offered to help investigate the outbreak in Saudi Arabia and another in the United Arab Emirates. Since MERS first emerged in April 2012, some 253 laboratory-confirmed human cases have been reported to the WHO, including 93 deaths. While the vast majority are in Saudi Arabia, there have also been cases in Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, as well as Europe, North Africa and Asia.

The WHO said the source of infection remains “undetermined”, but evidence is growing of a link to camels, believed by many experts to be the animal reservoir of the virus. MERS is from the same virus family as SARS, which killed some 800 people worldwide after emerging in China in 2002. On Monday, King Abdullah replaced health minister Abdullah al-Rabeeah, a noted surgeon whose attempts to reassure the public with reminders that MERS is not easily spread between people were dismissed by many Saudis as an attempt to downplay the gravity of the situation. Despite heading a team that separated a pair of conjoined twins on April 10, when three new MERS cases were identified in Jeddah, al-Rabeeah lacked the popular touch of the man who has replaced him on an acting basis, Labour Minister Adel Fakieh. Fakieh’s first moves in his new job were to tour Jeddah’s King Fahd Hospital, where some of the cases were discovered, and to pledge to uphold “the principles of transparency”. King Fahd Hospital felt unusually quiet for a major city health facility this week. King Abdullah was in the Saudi commercial hub of Jeddah on Thursday in a bid to reassure a worried public as the death toll from the MERS virus hit 85.

The Red Sea city has seen a spate of cases among health staff in recent weeks that have sparked fears that the virus has mutated to make it more transmissible from person to person. The World Health Organisation announced on Wednesday that it had offered to send international experts to Saudi Arabia to investigate “any evolving risk” resulting from the apparent change in transmission pattern. Public concern has been fuelled by the reported resignation last week of at least four doctors at Jeddah’s King Fahd Hospital after they refused to treat MERS patients for fear of infection with the deadly coronavirus. In its latest bulletin on Wednesday, the health ministry said that it had recorded a total of 287 cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in the kingdom so far, of whom a full 85 had died. Despite the figures, the royal family insisted there was no cause for public alarm. National Guard Minister Prince Mitab said his father King Abdullah was in Jeddah “to reassure the public and to prove that the exaggerated and false rumours about coronavirus are not true.”

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