Saudis Blame Government, Hospitals as Deadly Virus Spreads in Mideast

Apr 14, 2014 at 12:33 PM ET

A rare respiratory virus that killed more than 100 people in the Middle East in 2012 has resurfaced—and it’s sparking alarm and anger.

New cases of MERS, a virus traced to an Egyptian tomb bat, have turned up again in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and for the first time in Yemen, too. The rage has been the loudest in Saudi Arabia, which has had the majority of MERS cases. People are upset about what they say are poor levels of hygiene at Saudi hospitals, a lack of public outreach about MERS and mismanagement of the crisis by the Saudi Ministry of Health.

MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, remains a mystery. Researchers and doctors don’t know how it spreads or why it emerged in the first place. Much like the SARS virus, which infected more than 8,000 people in Asia in 2003, when people get MERS they first show symptoms of fever and a mild cough, which may last for several days. That can lead to pneumonia. However, unlike SARS, MERS can ultimately cause rapid kidney failure.

MERS first appeared in September 2012, and while it has infected only 189 people, it has had a fatality rate of 60%. By contrast, less than 10% of the people infected with SARS have died. With a surge of new MERS cases, the hashtag #corona in Arabic was tweeted over 110,000 times in a span of three days. Mapping the social media discussion of the virus shows that the epicenter of the anger is in Jeddah, the scene of one of the more virulent current outbreaks.

Jeddah, one of Saudi Arabia’s largest cities, attracts millions of visitors every year. During the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Jeddah’s international airport gets up to 2 million visitors from around the world in the span of a week. Last year, 1 million people were forced to forgo the annual Hajj because of concerns over the spread of MERS.

With the recent number cases, over 50 of those infected are health-care workers. According to Ian M. Mackay, an Australian epidemiologist who has tracked the outbreak, the virus does not spread easily from person-to-person, suggesting that the current outbreak is a result of a “breakdown in infection prevention and control.”

There is no current treatment for MERS, and people infected with the virus receive only supportive treatment from the hospitals. The U.S. National Institutes of Health, in a partnership with the New York Blood Center’s (NYBC) Laboratory of Viral Immunology, is working on the development of a vaccine.

A Saudi doctor claims, however, that she has developed a vaccine through testing on camels, but that the Saudi Ministry of Health is instead intent on buying a less effective foreign vaccine. The claims by Faten Khorshid were fueling anger on Twitter toward the Saudi Ministry of Health. Her name was mentioned in tweets over 1,000 times in the last two days.

“The Ministry of Health refused to let Saudi doctors like Dr. Faten Khorshid produce a vaccine for the virus and insisted instead on buying it from abroad.”

Other social media users were claiming that financial motives were responsible for the lack of preventative treatments:

The above tweet claims: “The vaccine is available at American pharmaceutical companies, yet they are waiting for the disease to spread to make billions.”

Another tweeter suggests: “A few years ago, the American economy was in crisis, so they told us about the swine flu and we bought vaccines by the millions. Now they are talking about the corona virus. Virus warfare.”

One caricature posted on Twitter illustrates the futility of existing treatments.

The man in the image represents the Ministry of Health. He is throwing tablets of Fevadol, a locally produced flu-like symptom reliever, at the ginormous virus.