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Editorial: MERS — no need to panic

Though there can be no ignoring the misery and heartache of the friends and families of its victims, the number of people in the Kingdom known to have died from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome remains happily low.
According to Ministry of Health officials, there have been a total of 212 identified infections and 72 deaths, the latest of which occurred in Jeddah on Wednesday. These are the figures collected here since the coronavirus (MERS) was first identified in the spring of 2012. Unclear reports also so suggest that the condition has presented itself in five other Arab states: Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Tunisia, as well as France, Italy and the United Kingdom.
Preliminary statistics suggest that the virus, the symptoms of which include a high fever and a persistent cough, proves fatal in around 35 percent of those infected. It is perhaps this outcome that appears to be causing concern among members of the public.
It is quite understandable that people should fear for the health of their loved ones, as well as themselves. But it is important that this condition is viewed in a proper perspective. There are more than 29 million people living in Saudi Arabia with an average life expectancy in excess of 75 years. The current MERS death toll is therefore statistically insignificant. It is also worth examining who has been contracting the deadly virus. Some of them have been health professionals who had the misfortune not to mask up when first encountering infected patients. And since the virus is spread by close contact, unsuspecting relatives who have been caring for family members, have also themselves fallen victim. Thus clear clusters of infection have been identified.
The Haj and Umrah authorities have spent the last two years doing everything they can to ensure that pilgrims are kept safe and healthy during their visit to the Kingdom. And it did work, MERS has not been contracted by pilgrims, who visit the Kingdom in large numbers. And insidiously, as with similar conditions, not everyone who carries MERS is infected. It appears that vectors can inadvertently serve to spread the virus while displaying none of the symptoms themselves and suffering no ill effects.
Later this month, some of the best brains in disease control will be arriving under the World Health Organization banner for top-level meetings in Riyadh to see how the disease can be contained and eradicated. There are certain to be three fronts to their discussions. The first will be how to improve the precautionary processes needed to identify and isolate victims before they themselves can pass MERS on. None of this is rocket science. Basic medical and hygiene precautions will make it harder for the virus to spread through close contact.
The second front is the analysis of the virus and the identification of the best way to defeat and kill it. This could require considerable work by top researchers. The good news here is that the Kingdom is not short of the financial resources to fund intensive research into the virus and its cure. Nor is there any lack of world-class research facilities here, where much of the pathological analysis and detective work could be undertaken. With the right will and coordination, sooner rather than later, the terrible secrets of MERS could be unmasked and defeated.
The third front is no less important. It is critical that the public be convinced that there is no cause for alarm. Infection is such a remote possibility. And if people are afraid of going into public spaces where contagion might lie, then simple face masks will probably cancel virtually all risk. Such masks may look silly but they were common in China and much of the rest of Asia during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) scare of 2003. Indeed, given the enduring pollution in many Chinese cities, they are still common.
The key to public confidence is the provision of full and timely information. Ministry of Health officials appear to have done a very good job so far of keeping ordinary people informed about what is really going on. They should be sure not to let this record slip. If reliable official figures are not forthcoming on a regular basis, the clear danger is that an information vacuum will be filled by rumor. Ill-informed speculation could trigger the spread of alarming but totally inaccurate news, which, thanks to social media, could rapidly go far more viral than MERS itself. Therefore it is imperative that good data is publicized in a clear and understandable format, in which everyone can have complete confidence.

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