Mers: Saudis in push to keep Hajj free from deadly virus

Health officials in Saudi Arabia say they are doing all they can to avoid an outbreak of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) coronavirus at the annual Hajj pilgrimage next month. The BBC’s Global Health Correspondent Tulip Mazumdar has been given rare access to the kingdom.

Out in the humid golden desert on the outskirts of Jeddah we witness a loving scene. A large, strong, beautiful camel is stroked and kissed by one of its herders, Abdel Salam Youssof.

“I wake up each morning with my children and the first thing we do is bring him food and water,” he says.

These impressive animals are the source of millions of dollars’ worth of trade, as well as entertainment, food, drink – and status in Saudi Arabia. But they are also believed to be a source of one of the world’s newest killer viruses, known as Mers.

In camels Mers mainly causes a mild cold. In humans it can be deadly.

The virus has killed 302 people in Saudi Arabia since it first emerged in 2012. More than 723 people have been infected.

At its peak in April and May, the World Health Organization (WHO) was considering declaring Mers a public health emergency.

Symptoms include fever, coughing and shortness in breath. It can also cause pneumonia and kidney failure. Nearly 40% of those infected have died. Most already had an underlying medical problem.

It is unclear exactly how it passes from camels to people. Scientists say it is probably via secretions from the nose and mouth of infected animals. Raw camel milk could also carry the virus.

The WHO says anyone working closely with camels should wear protective gear like masks and gloves. It also says people should avoid drinking raw camel milk.

We didn’t see anyone at the market following that advice.

“I’ve drunk raw camel milk every day for the last 17 years and I am fine. Everything is safe here,” said Mr Youssof.

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Eric Write head editor and chief at The Pluto Daily