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A Killer Virus in Saudi Arabia

Posted on May 08, 2013 by Ailee Slater ()  | Tags: Arabian Peninsula, novel coronavirus, SARS, Saudi Arabia, WHO

In 2003, China and Hong Kong experienced a SARS pandemic; the first one in recorded history. This pneumonia-like disease began infecting people in China, Hong Kong and Vietnam; eventually spreading to 37 countries around the world. Especially scary was the virus' quick rate of infection - in less than nine months, SARS managed to infect an estimated 8,000 people, leading to the deaths of nearly 800.

These frightening statistics give some clue as to why health officials in Saudi Arabia and surrounding countries are more than a little concerned that just this week, at least two more people have died from a SARS-like virus. This virus has been infecting citizens on the Arabian Peninsula since last year, but recently, deaths related to the virus have greatly increased - the World Health Organization reports a current death toll of eighteen. 

Known as the novel coronavirus, this illness comes from the same family as the virus responsible for the SARS pandemic in 2003. Because the novel coronavirus has never before been seen in humans (hence the name), a great deal of information about the disease is not known. Although the novel coronavirus is found in bats, the WHO has reported it is unlikely that these animals transferred the disease to humans, due to variations between the animal and human strains of the virus. Human to human transmission is definitely possible - already, a British man who had recently visited Saudi Arabia and Pakistan returned home with symptoms of the novel coronavirus, and passed on the infection to two family members.

Like SARS, the novel coronavirus will cause severe respiratory symptoms, including coughing, difficulty breathing, and fever. In worst case scenarios, a patient may experience pneumonia or kidney failure.

Since it was discovered in 2012, the novel coronavirus has infected a total of 27 people, according to the most recent information from the World Health Organization. Of those 27 people, all have either resided in or paid a recent visit to the Arabian Peninsula. The most recent coronavirus deaths occurred this week, and, in the past five days, Saudi Arabia has reported seven fatalities due to the virus. The Saudi Ministry of Health also reports that at least six other people are currently in a health care facility receiving treatment for a coronavirus infection.

So, what happens now? To begin, health organizations in the Arabian Peninsula and worldwide are hoping for a good level of transparency - when SARS cases first arose in 2002 in the Chinese province Guangdong, the media in China was discouraged from reporting about the outbreak. World Health Organization officials were refused entrance to the province, and it was not until February 2003 that the extent of that initial SARS outbreak was fully understood. Due to that lack of transparency, the virus was given time to spread - health care workers were not prepared for SARS, travel limitations were not enforced, and those infected were not properly quarantined.

Luckily, the Chinese government realized that keeping the SARS epidemic a secret would not be possible, and officials decided to completely change their SARS policy. The central government began to demand that local officials report all SARS cases as quickly and accurately as possible. With better information from hospitals around the country, China and the World Health Organization were better equipped to fight the battle against SARS.

In Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, cases of the coronavirus are being reported, but the World Health Organization has expressed some concerns over the transparency of information. The fact that Saudi Arabia announced the deaths of seven people over five days may indicate that knowledge of these novel coronavirus fatalities was known for some time to health officials before it was made public on an international scale. Information about that patients' ages and genders, and how long they were ill and under treatment for the disease, has been slow to come.

However, neither the World Health Organization nor other groups such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have issued travel warnings against visiting Saudi Arabia or any other country. Although travelers are not advised to change their plans, the Centers for Disease Control does recommend that anyone near the Arabian Peninsula take care to monitor their health, and be vigilant for respiratory symptoms.

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