MERS alert: Spate of Mideast virus infections raises concerns

Updated 18 April 2014
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MERS alert: Spate of Mideast virus infections raises concerns

DUBAI: A recent spate of infections from a frequently deadly Middle East virus is raising new worries about efforts to contain the illness, with infectious disease experts urging greater vigilance in combatting its spread.
More than 20 people, many of them health-care workers, have been reported infected with the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus in two distinct clusters — one in Saudi Arabia and the UAE — likely involving human-to-human transmission since early last week.
The disease, originally identified in 2012 in the Middle East, has also for the first time spread to the Far East, which grappled with an outbreak of the related SARS virus last decade.
“The last two weeks have put us into uncharted territory,” said Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota.
He described the recent batches of Saudi and UAE infections as “very important” and a possible signal that the virus could be mutating.
The disease’s spread to Southeast Asia — confined for now to people with clear links to the Mideast — meanwhile “heightens the concern that we could be in the early days of another SARS-like event,” he warned.
“We’re clearly at a very significant stay-tuned moment,” Osterholm said.
MERS belongs to a family of viruses known as coronaviruses that include both the common cold and SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed some 800 people in a global outbreak in 2003.
MERS can cause symptoms such as fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure.
It does not for now appear to spread as quickly between people as SARS did. But it does seem to be more deadly. According to the World Health Organization, 92 of the 238 people confirmed to have been infected with MERS have died.
The WHO has stopped short of calling for specific travel and trade restrictions. It has urged member countries to report detailed information about all cases and says more needs to be known about how the disease is transmitted within hospitals.
A Malaysian man this week became the first person to die from the MERS in Asia.
The 54-year-old from southern Johor state, near Singapore, developed a high fever and cough and had difficulty breathing after returning from a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia on March 29.
Scientists believe that camels are a key source of transmission of the virus to humans, though it is not clear how infection occurs.
It is also unclear how readily the virus can pass between people, though that appears to have happened in the Saudi and UAE infections.
“It is always a worry if sustained human-to-human transmission of a newly identified virus occurs,” said Ian Mackay, a virologist affiliated with the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Center at the University of Queensland.
He noted that sustained transmission beyond those local clusters hasn’t been seen yet, and that recent infections might have resulted from relatively close contact between medical professionals and an infected patient.
Other Mideast countries that have past reported cases of infection include Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. A small number of cases have been diagnosed in Europe and North Africa.
Saudi health authorities last week reported that 11 people in the Red Sea city of Jiddah were infected, some of them health care workers, and that two had died.
Officials there took the extraordinary step of redirecting patients away from the King Fahd hospital, where at least one of those infected worked, to other health care facilities so the emergency ward could be thoroughly cleaned.
In an updated statement released on Wednesday, the Saudi Health Ministry reported that 37 cases of the virus have been detected at five hospitals in Jiddah between March 15 and this past Tuesday, seven of them fatal.
“We can only hope that the current hot zone, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, soon gets ahead of the outbreak through proactive action,” Mackay said.
“It seems that infection prevention and control has broken down in these health care outbreaks and this will need to be addressed throughout the region.”
The UAE separately reported infections among 10 health care workers linked to a Filipino paramedic who died in the Gulf country on April 10. According to information reported to the WHO this week, they range in age from 27 to 48 and were listed in stable condition. Most were hospitalized with no symptoms or mild illness. One showed signs of pneumonia.
The Philippines health department on Thursday urged all passengers who arrived on an Etihad Airways flight from Abu Dhabi to Manila recently to seek testing after officials determined that one person on the plane was found to be infected.
He is now being confined to the hospital, and family and friends are also being tested.
Abu Dhabi-based Etihad said health authorities in the Emirates are also contacting passengers who were on the flight, and that it is screening crew members who were onboard.


Cyclone Mekunu intensifies, Salalah to be hardest hit

Updated 51 min 56 sec ago
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Cyclone Mekunu intensifies, Salalah to be hardest hit

JEDDAH: Oman said Friday that Cyclone Mekunu, which wreaked havoc in the Yemeni island of Socotra, has intensified into category 2 as it bore down on the south of the sultanate.
“Latest observations show that tropical Cyclone Mekunu has intensified to category 2,” with high wind speeds, Oman’s Directorate General of Meteorology said on Twitter.
The center said in its latest warning that the eye of Mekunu was expected to hit Salalah, Oman’s third-largest city and home to some 200,000 people close to the Yemeni border, at around 1600 local time (1200 GMT).
The impact on the city and Dhofar province was expected to last several hours with wind speeds of 170 kilometers (106 miles) per hour.
Heavy rains and strong winds have already been pummelling Dhofar province and authorities have urged residents to stay indoors.
Five people were killed and at least 40 missing on Socotra on Friday as Cyclone Mekunu pummelled the area then made its way toward the Arabian Peninsula’s southern coast.
The five dead included four Yemenis and one Indian national, while the missing including Yemenis, Indians and Sudanese.
Yemen declared a state of emergency on Thursday for Socotra, after officials said Friday that over 230 families had been relocated to shelter in sturdier buildings and other areas, including those more inland and in the island’s mountains.
Socotra Gov. Ramzy Mahrous said one ship sank and two others ran aground in the storm, initially saying authorities believed 17 people were missing.
“We consider them dead,” the governor said.
They say floods swept Socotra streets, washed away thousands of animals and cut electricity and communication lines. Some humanitarian aid from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates arrived just hours after the cyclone receded.
Saudi Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed Al-Jabir, who also serves as Supervisor of Yemen Reconstruction Program and Executive Director of Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations (YCHO), confirmed in an official statement that “The Saudi Reconstruction Team in Yemen at the Socotra office is working with the local authority to deal with the aftermath of Cyclone Mekunu, open roads and assist those in distress, in anticipation of the arrival of relief aid and shelter, that was hindered today by weather conditions.”
He added: “Saudi Joint Forces planes carrying tens of thousands of tons of relief, shelter and medical supplies from the Kingdom through KSrelief are preparing to head to Socotra to assist as soon as the weather conditions improve.”‏
The officials say heavy rains are now pummeling Yemen’s easternmost province of Al-Mahra, on the border with Oman. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The government declared the island in the northwest Indian Ocean, part of a UNESCO-protected archipelago for its rich biodiversity, a “disaster” zone.
Socotra Gov. Ramzy Mahrous said one ship sank and two others ran aground in the storm, initially saying authorities believed 17 people were missing.
“We consider them dead,” the governor said.
The Yemeni high relief agency met with international humanitarian organizations in Aden late Thursday to discuss the situation, the Saba news agency reported.
They decided to set up 11 relief centers in Socotra to provide shelter for people forced to evacuate their homes.
The meeting also discussed measures to provide aid to residents of three provinces in southeast Yemen expected to be hit by the cyclone.
Omani forecasters warned Salalah and the surrounding area would get at least 200 millimeters (7.87 inches) of rain, over twice the amount of rain this city typically gets in a year. Authorities remained worried about flash flooding in the area’s valleys and potential mudslides down its nearby cloud-shrouded mountains.
Conditions quickly deteriorated in Salalah after sunrise Friday, with winds and rain beginning to pick up. Strong waves smashed into empty tourist beaches.
Across the border in Oman, authorities have placed police and army on alert and closed schools until Monday in preparation for the cyclone.
“Of course, for the citizen there is going to be a sense of fear of the consequences that can happen,” said Brig. Gen. Mohsin bin Ahmed Al-Abri, the commander of Dhofar governorate’s police. “We have been through a few similar cases and there were losses in properties and also in human life as well. But one has to take precautions and work on that basis.”
State-run television said authorities had evacuated hundreds of residents from a small island off Salalah, the town where Oman’s Sultan Qaboos was born.
As torrential rains poured down, local authorities opened schools to shelter those whose homes are at risk. About 600 people, mostly laborers, huddled at the West Salalah School, some sleeping on mattresses on the floors of classrooms, where math and English lesson posters hung on the walls.
Oman’s civil aviation authority announced that Salalah airport would be closed for 24 hours from midnight (2000 GMT Thursday).
Many holidaymakers fled the storm Thursday night before Salalah International Airport closed. The Port of Salalah — a key gateway for the country — also closed, its cranes secured against the pounding rain.
Streets quickly emptied across the city. Standing water covered roads and caused at least one car to hydroplane and flip over.
Later, a municipal worker on a massive loader used its bucket to tear into a road median to drain a flooded street, showing how desperate the situation could become.
Mekunu was expected to weaken to a tropical storm before reaching southeastern Saudi Arabia on Saturday, according to the Kingdom’s meteorological authority.
Powerful cyclones are rare in Oman. Over a roughly 100-year period ending in 1996, only 17 recorded cyclones struck the sultanate on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. In 2007, Cyclone Gonu tore through Oman and later even reached Iran, causing $4 billion in damage in Oman alone and killing over 70 people across the Mideast.
The last hurricane-strength storm to strike within 160 kilometers (100 miles) of Salalah came in May 1959, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s archives. However, that cyclone was categorized as a Category 1 hurricane, meaning it only had winds of up to 152 kph (95 mph).
Mekunu, which means “mullet” in Dhivehi, the language spoken in the Maldives, is on track to potentially be the same strength as a Category 2 hurricane at landfall. It also comes just days after Cyclone Sagar struck Somalia.