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Stay Away from Camel Milk and Egyptian Tomb Bats

Author: Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health
April 30, 2014
Foreign Policy


Anxiety runs deep in Saudi Arabia these days. A SARS-like disease that kills a third of those it infects is suddenly, and mysteriously, surging inside the kingdom. The country is struggling for answers -- and so are its neighbors.

It's called the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and though the majority of the cases have been found in Saudi Arabia, 14 other countries have reported instances. Make that 15: Egypt just reported a case at the end of April.

The virus first emerged in the eastern oasis town of Al-Ahsa in the spring of 2012. But not until April 2014 did it seem likely to be a pandemic: That is to say, nearly half of all cumulative cases since 2012 have occurred in Saudi Arabia in April 2014. As of April 29, the kingdom reported a total of 345 cases since the virus first emerged -- 105, or 30 percent, of them have proved fatal. Seventy-three cases have been reported outside Saudi Arabia, and nearly all those cases have been linked to travel to the kingdom.

Among those cases, at least two were among religious pilgrims: The first pilgrim, from Malaysia, reportedly drank camel's milk in Jeddah before returning home, and the second pilgrim, from Turkey, died last week in Mecca. But a considerable number of cases -- nine out of the 14 reported in April -- have included foreign workers, such as nurses, domestic workers, and oil industry employees. Most of these workers have stayed in Saudi Arabia for their treatment, though the Philippines issued a health alert after an infected nurse returned to Manila.

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