With Ramadan coming up, vigilance is vital in containing Mers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2014, 4:07am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2014, 7:42am

The threat of contagion posed by Mers might look benign compared with the Sars outbreak 11 years ago, thanks to its origin in a distant region, and slower, widely reported spread. But health authorities planning a response to the possible arrival of the deadly Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome in this part of the world depend on the most up-to-date, accurate epidemiological information.

For this we look to the World Health Organisation, whose chief is Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, who was also Hong Kong's health chief during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak. Despite the bitter lessons of that ordeal, however, bureaucracy in the UN health organisation seems to have got in the way of prompt communication of data that health officials rely on.

Dr Ho Pak-leung, president of the University of Hong Kong's centre for infection, says the problem is serious and the figures seem to support him. Whereas the WHO reported on April 26 that Mers had infected 261 people worldwide since 2012 with 93 deaths, it was reported on Saturday that Saudi Arabia - the epicentre of the outbreak - had recorded 104 new infections in the previous two weeks alone, taking the domestic total to 371, with 107 deaths. In any case, there were more reported cases last month than in all of 2013.

A WHO spokesman explained that the organisation often sought more detail before announcing new figures. He agreed the global figure could now be well over 400 because the United Arab Emirates had not been consistent in updating its outbreak. The WHO should at least issue some advance guidance on trends, since Dr Ho says delayed figures prevent the accurate analysis needed to get a grasp on the epidemic.

The first reported case in the United States, a man who left Saudi Arabia on April 24, has prompted our health authorities to renew a call on the public to stay alert. Though it has a higher fatality rate, Mers has so far proved less infectious than Sars. But microbiologists warn that a mutation which could cause a deadly pandemic cannot be ruled out.

Since early quarantine is seen as a way to contain an outbreak, regional health authorities need to be on heightened alert with passengers returning from the Persian Gulf with its mobile migrant worker populations. This is particularly so from July, when many of this city's 250,000 Muslims may visit Saudi Arabia for the holy month of Ramadan.