WHO won't block haj visits to Saudi Arabia over Mers

WHO says the virus does not yet carry enough threat to force blocking of Muslim pilgrimages

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 July, 2013, 2:58am


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The World Health Organisation says the Mers virus striking Saudi Arabia is not a "public health emergency of international concern", and is not seeking travel restrictions as the kingdom braces for the Muslim haj pilgrimage.

In a statement following a session of the UN health agency's emergency committee on Wednesday, whose rarity underlined global concerns about the Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome) coronavirus, the WHO said there was no reason to lift its alert level.

"The [WHO] director-general [Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun] accepted the committee's assessment that the current Mers-CoV situation is serious and of great concern, but does not constitute a public health emergency of international concern at this time," a WHO statement issued in Geneva said.

The meeting came as concern grew over the potential impact of the annual haj in October, when millions of people will head to Islam's two holiest sites of Mecca and Medina, providing a possible means for Mers to spread around the globe.

"It is the unanimous decision of the committee that, with the information now available, and using a risk-assessment approach, the conditions for a public health emergency of international concern have not at present been met," the statement said.

The WHO's stance so far has been that countries should remain vigilant, monitoring unusual respiratory infection patterns, notably if patients have been to the Middle East.

However, the committee also said the WHO should help nations boost surveillance and laboratory capacity and inform the public about how to reduce the risks of infection.

While the WHO did not call for travel and trade restrictions, its health security chief Keiji Fukuda said it was poised to issue general recommendations.

We do recognise that this is a risk for travellers and that there are certain steps that individual travellers and countries can take, for example for people who have serious medical conditions
WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda

"We do recognise that this is a risk for travellers and that there are certain steps that individual travellers and countries can take, for example for people who have serious medical conditions," he said.

On Saturday, Saudi health authorities urged the elderly and chronically ill, as well as children and pregnant women, not to perform the haj. Officials in France meanwhile said they had been informed that such individuals would not get Saudi visas.

Fukuda said that such moves were a national matter.

The emergency meeting took the form of a telephone conference of officials from affected countries and global experts, with the goal of advising Chan.

"They're not saying this is unimportant, they're not saying we can now just move on to other things," said Fukuda, pressed on the decision not to declare an emergency.

"There's clearly a concern out there about this," he said, while asking: 'If the director general goes ahead and declares an emergency, is it going to be helpful'."

Mers claimed its first victim in Saudi Arabia in June last year.

Since then, 82 cases have been recorded worldwide, in countries including Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Britain, France and Italy. Saudi Arabia, however, has borne the brunt, with 65 cases, and also 38 of the 45 confirmed Mers deaths.

Experts are struggling to understand Mers, for which there is no vaccine. It does not appear to spread easily but has an extremely high fatality rate of 55 per cent. It is related to Sars, which erupted in Hong Kong and southern China in 2003 and infected 8,273 people, nine per cent of whom died.

Additional reporting by Reuters