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How Saudi Arabia Is Responding To MERS Crisis

May 20, 2014

The World Health Organization is seriously worried about Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). It has killed 126 people in Saudi Arabia since it was first identified two years ago.

The BBC’s Zubeida Malik brought us this report about how the country is responding to the crisis.

Note: Please download the Here & Now podcast or use the WBUR app to hear this interview.


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An American man who caught the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, while working as a health care worker in Saudi Arabia has been released from a Florida hospital. He is one of three people in the U.S. to have become infected. In Saudi Arabia, more than 100 people have died from MERS, and the country is struggling to respond to the ongoing crisis. The BBC's Zubeida Malik reports.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

ZUBEIDA MALIK, BYLINE: A video from the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia are devising people in the country on how best to avoid Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS as it's called. It's the latest attempt by the authorities to allay people's concerns and stop the spread of the disease.

Over 100 people have died from the virus, which starts off with flu-like symptoms and coughing. Although not always fatal, there is no cure or vaccine for MERS. Saudia(ph) is a social worker who lives in Jeddah. She says people have been panicking in the city.

SAUDIA: They are more afraid of any person who has flu symptoms, sneezing or coughing in public.

MALIK: She says her friends who are doctors have advised her to avoid crowded places, to wash her hands frequently, and to eat healthily. Salim(ph) is an expert who lives and works in Jeddah and is worried about the risk to his children. His words have been voiced out by an actor.

SALIM: My children school alongside of this have adjusted timings to reduce the school day. Face masks are a regular feature around Jeddah now. We are aware of alerts coming from various ministries providing information on the illness and what precautions to take. To be frank, the end of term and holiday period could not come quick enough.

MALIK: The Saudi authorities have introduced new measures this week to deal with the virus including a rapid deployment team. Experts from Western countries have flown in to help and advise. Khaled Almaeena is an influential writer and the editor at large of the Saudi Gazette. He wrote a damning piece last month criticizing the authorities. Since then, the health minister has been replaced and two senior officials have been sacked. He says initially procedures were not being followed in hospitals in Jeddah.

KHALED ALMAEENA: General hospitals, there are a lot of people go out in thousands of people around there, and probably the hygiene level was not up to the standard, and at the same time, I think the doctors were careless in sort of in the diagnosis, in treatment, in taking the precautionary measures to see to it that others will not be infected. You had nurses infected. You had some people die, medical personnel died.

MALIK: Khaled Almaeena says the new health minister has been touring the country visiting hospitals, and things are improving now. But the concern for many is that with the annual pilgrimage of Hajj this summer, and millions from around the world expected to travel to Saudi Arabia, will the virus be contained and a cure found in time?

HOBSON: That's the BBC's Zubeida Malik reporting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.