No Cases Yet, but Israel Keeping Eye Out for MERS Virus

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Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah sacked the country’s health minister on Monday, April 21, 2014, amid a spike in deaths and infections from the virus known as the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERSCredit: AP

Egypt on Saturday discovered its first case of the deadly MERS virus, in a patient who had recently arrived from Saudi Arabia. That day the infection toll in Saudi Arabia from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome reached 323 confirmed cases, Reuters reported. More than 100 have died.

The deadly virus, which seems to kill about 40% of its victims, has reportedly also been detected in Asia and Europe. But Israel so far has been spared, says the Health Ministry.

MERS is a SARS-like coronavirus, meaning it belongs to the family of cold viruses, some of which can get vicious. SARS – severe acute respiratory syndrome – is another member of that clan. The disease itself starts out resembling flu, with fever, loose bowels and breathing difficulty, followed by pneumonia and kidney failure. There's no vaccine for it (leaving aside debate about the efficacy of flu shots). Nor is it known exactly how this virus spreads.

Or particular concern is hajj season, which falls this year in October. Millions will be flocking to Mecca and Medina, and some could return home carrying the bug. It's hard to counsel pilgrims on infection avoidance without knowledge of how infection happens. But last year, warned in advance of the MERS virus making the rounds, many pilgrims wore face-masks, and no cases of infection were reported.

Although Israel and Saudi Arabia don't have diplomatic relations, Israeli Arabs can and do make the pilgrimage, to the tune of many hundreds a year. Although they go through an official body, the National Hajj Committee, which grants permits based on various criteria (such as whether the applicant has already done the hajj before), the Shin Ben security service has argued that Iran and extremist Muslim organizations such as Al-Qaida could take advantage of the hajj to try to recruit Arab Israelis as spies or for terrorist actions. But could perfectly innocent pilgrims inadvertently come home with infection?

Theoretically, yes. Gazans go to Saudi Arabia for the hajj through Egypt, and Palestinians from the West Bank go via Jordan. Israeli Arabs are also taken by bus to Jordan, where they continue onto Saudi Arabia with special travel permits. But once in Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs are free to mix with everybody.

As said, no cases have been found in Israel yet. "The ministry is familiar with the subject and has been keeping track of it for over a year, and has disseminated several circulars with directives regarding identification, diagnosis and preparation to the professionals in the healthcare system," the Health Ministry said in a statement.

There are no special directives for the general public, the ministry said, adding that the disease "is only infectious by close contact with a sufferer." 

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