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WHO mission says there is no evidence MERS is spreading widely in Saudi Arabia

06/10/2013 10:01 EDT | Updated 08/10/2013 05:12 EDT
A team of international experts says there is no evidence that the MERS coronavirus is spreading widely person-to-person in Saudi Arabia.

The team, pulled together by the World Health Organization, concluded a six-day fact finding mission to Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

Canadian SARS expert Dr. Allison McGeer was a member of the mission.

The group says given that cases of the new infection have been picked up in a number of European countries, health-care workers everywhere should be on the look out for MERS cases.

They say hospitals treating unexplained cases of pneumonia would consider that MERS may be the cause of infection.

To date there have been 55 cases of infection with the MERS virus, which is a cousin of the SARS coronavirus; 31 of the cases have died.

All of the infections have had a link to four countries on the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. The lion's share of the cases have been reported by Saudi Arabia.

The team's report, posted on the website of the WHO's Eastern Mediterranean regional office, says three patterns of infections have been noted to date.

Some cases have been sporadic — single cases where the person contracted the virus from an as-yet unidentified source. Others occur in clusters within families, where it appears that limited person-to-person spread may have taken place.

The third pattern involves clusters of patients in health-care facilities. Hospital-based spread has been seen in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and France, where a man who was infected in the UAE passed the virus to a hospital roommate.

The report says it is important to note that in all cases where person-to-person spread is believed to have taken place, the transmission has been limited.

The experts also highlighted the fact that there have been few instances reported where health-care workers have been infected. During the 2003 SARS outbreak health-care workers served as sentinels of spread of the disease, making up roughly 20 per cent of the global SARS case count.

"Many fewer infections with MERS-CoV have been reported in health-care workers in KSA (the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) than might have been expected on the basis of the previous experience of SARS," the report says.

"Although the reason why fewer health care workers have been infected with MERS-CoV is not clear, it could be that improvements in infection control that were made after the outbreak of SARS have made a significant difference."

The report says large gaps remain in the understanding of the new virus and the disease it causes, but it noted it takes time for scientific investigations to produce results.

The report also assessed Saudi Arabia's response to MERS, saying it had done an excellent job investigating and controlling the outbreak.

The team said nothing, however, about the country's record on sharing information. Saudi health authorities have released only the barest of facts about the outbreak and that approach has been harshly criticized.

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