SARS-like Mystery Virus Appears in Saudi Arabia, Alerting Haj Pilgrims

A new SARS-like mystery illness has health authorities alert ahead of the millions-strong Haj pilgrammage to Mecca.

There have been two recent cases of a mysterious SARS-like virus linked to Saudi Arabia. It killed one of its victims from Saudi Arabia. The second who is still alive travelled through the country.

The unknown mystery virus which is not Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (or SARS) which killed 800 people worldwide in 2003, is similar to SARS and is raising concern ahead of the Muslim Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. The new virus can cause rapid kidney failure and with the upcoming Muslim Hajj pilgrimage planned for next month in Saudi Arabia, the World Health Organization (WHO) is warning Saudi organizers to be vigilant.

Pilgrams have started flowing into Mecca (some even by bike!), the world’s largest annual pilgrimage, and living in close quarters these millions of pilgrims are put at risk for contagious diseases.

“Though it is a very different virus to SARS, given the severity of the two confirmed cases so far, WHO is engaged in further characterizing the novel coronavirus,” the  WHO, a UN-run organization writes. “As such, international efforts are being stepped up across all WHO six regions to ensure an appropriate and effective response with a WHO specialist team in daily contact with more than a dozen international and regional technical partners.”

WHO reports that as of September 25, 2012, there have been no additional cases of acute respiratory syndrome with renal failure due to infection with a novel coronavirus. The organization is also looking for a network of laboratories that can provide expertise on coronaviruses for countries should an epidemic arise.

On September 22, 2012, it was the United Kingdom which informed WHO of a case of acute respiratory syndrome with travel history to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The case is of previously healthy, 49 year-old male Qatari national that presented with symptoms on 3 September 2012 with travel history to Saudi Arabia several days prior to onset of illness. On September 7 he was admitted to an intensive care unit in Doha, Qatar.

On 11 September, he was transferred to the UK by air ambulance from Qatar. The Health Protection Agency of the UK (HPA) conducted laboratory testing and subsequently confirmed the presence of the novel coronavirus.

The HPA compared the sequencing of the virus isolate from the 49 year-old Qatari national with that of a virus sequenced previously by the Erasmus University Medical Centre, Netherlands. This latter isolate was obtained from lung tissue of a fatal case earlier this year in a 60 year-old Saudi national.

If you are travelling to Mecca next month, download this health advisory issued by WHO (PDF).

Image of prayer at Mecca from Shutterstock

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