Spike in number of Mers cases in Saudi Arabia

Emergency ward in major hospital closed after 46 new cases reported

BEIRUT • Saudi Arabia is facing a new surge in cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), a viral disease that has infected more than 1,100 people and killed more than 480 in the kingdom since it appeared in 2012.

The Saudi authorities shuttered the emergency ward of one of the kingdom's largest hospitals this week after the appearance of 46 new cases of Mers, Saudi news media reported, citing a Health Ministry official. Fifteen of those infected were medical workers, and 20 other patients who were showing symptoms were being tested.

The spike in cases was the largest since the peak of the virus' spread last summer. It has raised fears that Mers could threaten the more than two million visitors expected next month for the annual haj pilgrimage.

The Mers virus can cause breathing problems, fever, pneumonia and kidney failure, and is believed to have passed to humans from camels. While it emerged in Saudi Arabia and most of its victims have visited the kingdom, travellers have taken it to other countries.

Several international medical professionals have criticised Saudi Arabia as being slow to put in place measures to stop the virus' spread, thus exacerbating the outbreak.

The spike in cases was the largest since the peak of the virus' spread last summer. It has raised fears that Mers could threaten the more than two million visitors expected next month for the annual haj pilgrimage.

At the peak of the Mers outbreak, infections were jumping from bed to bed in crowded hospitals, and medical workers were falling sick because of lax sanitary standards.

However, the frequency of new infections fell last year after new procedures were put in place in Saudi Arabia's hospitals to isolate potential cases.

The cause of the new surge remains unclear, but the cases were clustered in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, at King Abdulaziz Medical City.

In an effort to contain the outbreak, the hospital, in a statement on its website, said it was postponing non-urgent operations, allocating three wards for the isolation of new patients, and limiting visitors.

On Thursday, the Health Ministry reported two new deaths, bringing the total death toll in the kingdom to 485, out of 1,128 diagnosed cases since 2012.

In Singapore, the Ministry of Health has advised umrah and haj pilgrims to be vaccinated against influenza and meningitis ahead of their trips.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2015, with the headline 'Spike in number of Mers cases in Saudi Arabia'. Print Edition | Subscribe