Will an emerging viral disease ruin this year’s Hajj proceedings?
Even though it was discovered near the end of 2012, Saudi authorities were criticized for its delayed handling of MERS – Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus – which is also prevalent across the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, etc. and now threatens to disrupt the 2014 Hajj pilgrimage. Given the relatively “silent” spread of the virus, it was only as recently as July 2013 that the structure and histology of the MERS virus was fully documented.
Caused by a coronavirus called MERS-CoV which in humans will result in severe acute respiratory illness, symptoms of which includes cough and shortness of breath and in the advanced stages of the disease results in severe pneumonia and kidney failure. About 30 percent of people confirmed to have MERS-CoV infection have died. As of the middle of September 2014, there are 855 cases of MERS-CoV worldwide and 333 deaths so far. The virus was traced back to camels, but the way Middle Eastern public health authorities “downplayed” the urgency of the risk of the virus – which was way cavalier in comparison to the way public health authorities in East Asia handled the 2003 SARS coronavirus outbreak – resulted in the sacking of various health officials that included the health minister of Saudi Arabia which was personally sacked by HRS The King of Saudi Arabia himself for downplaying the risk of the MERS outbreak since 2013.
Due to the recent public health revamp, hospitals in Saudi Arabia has since taken more sensible precautions to avoid inadvertently spreading the MERS-CoV virus by having their nurses and other medical personnel to wash with disinfectant soaps before seeing other patients while doing their rounds on suspected MERS virus infected patients. Due to the increased urgency, Prof. Tariq Madani – the Saudi government’s scientific advisor on MERS recently spoke to the BBC back in the middle of September of 2014 that even though they still currently know very little of the MERS-CoV virus, safeguards are already implemented to avoid the spread of the virus during the upcoming Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca which is slated to greet a little over 2-million pilgrims this year. And Saudi Arabia’s acting health minister Adel Bin Muhammad Fakeih are urging camel merchants on the outskirts of Jeddah to take the necessary precautions on wearing masks and gloves when handling their camels. Though the camel merchants across the Middle East are still adopting a cavalier attitude when it comes to taking the necessary precautions against the MERS virus.
Even though Saudi Arabia’s public health authorities are doing the best they can to tackle the current MERS outbreak, the world narrowly averted a similar pandemic of a relatively unknown virus that was killing horses and their trainers in Australia during the mid-1990s. Back in September 1994, health authorities in Australia were worried. More than a dozen prize racehorses at the Hendra stables, outside of Brisbane in Australia’s northeast, were ill, running temperatures of up to 41 degrees Celsius. The animals had difficulty breathing and were emitting a bloody froth from their mouths and noses. Some began to die a ghastly, wheezing death. Within days, the worst fears of the public health authorities were realized: both the trainer and his stable-hand had collapsed, also suffering from respiratory problems.
The symptoms matched those of the African horse virus, or of equine influenza, both of which could spread from the Hendra stables and wreak havoc across Australia. But the infection of the two men raised another, more sinister possibility – that the health authorities were dealing with an unknown organism not only fatal to horses, but also capable of affecting humans as well.
Samples of horse spleen, lung and blood were sent to the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong – an imposing concrete structure outside Melbourne that houses one of the world’s most advanced infectious disease centers. Blood samples were from the two infected men were also rushed to the infectious diseases “hot labs” of Melbourne Fairfield Hospital and to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.
Electron microscopy later revealed that the virus grown in the media had similarities with a large family of viruses called Paramyxoviridae, which includes measles, canine distemper and a then newly identified disease first seen to affect seals back in 1994, But it had an array of protrusions like no other paramyxovirus and no Paramyxoviridae are known to cause serious disease in both horses and humans. Not long after, scientists in Brisbane also isolated a virus which matched that found by the Geelong group. Sadly though the trainer died and equine morbillivirus still flare up time and time again in that region, the virus’s relatively high fatality rate seems to be its own containment mechanism that prevents equine morbillivirus from becoming a global pandemic.