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Shock at discovery of new MERS cases in Saudi Arabia

The number of cases of illness caused by MERS Co-V in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia went up 20 percent June 3 with the surprise announcement by the Saudis that 113 cases had been discovered following a review of records. The Health Ministry, with little fanfare, released data that includes the previously unknown cases and included 92 additional fatalities from the respiratory illness. The magnitude of the results from the "rigorous examination of data" has caused shock waves in the public health community.

Graph illustrating known and newly discovered MERS cases in Saudi Arabia by week of onset.
Ministry of Health of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Helen Branswell, reporting in Metro, notes that the Saudi King dismissed his health minister in late April as a surge in MERS illnesses occurred. The deputy minister in charge of the Saudi efforts to cope with the outbreak, Dr. Ziad Memish, was dismissed on June 2. Neither firing has been officially linked to the Saudi's handling of the illnesses or the public health data.

As of the morning of June 4, the World Health Organization stated through its Twitter account that it had official reports of 681 lab-confirmed cases of MERS and 204 deaths. That toll does not include the newly discovered Saudi cases.

The Kingdom, as of noon on June 3, reported 689 cases of MERS and 283 deaths. Of those patients with symptoms, 353 have recovered and a remaining 53 are still being treated. The latest data shows that 41 percent of the Saudi patients died of their illness.

At this time, there have been just two imported cases of MERS in the United States. A third, originally thought to be locally acquired through contact with one of the two imported cases, was later discounted through additional laboratory testing. Public health authorities remain on alert for travelers from the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, that may display symptoms of an illness.

The Saudis have offered no explanation for the sudden appearance of additional MERS cases. The statement issued with the news discusses improved communication protocols and more rigorous testing procedures. It remains unclear if the cases were deliberately concealed or were the result of a change to a more liberal interpretation of testing results.

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