The World

Next Week’s Hajj Raises the Risk of a MERS Outbreak. Good Thing the CDC Is Shut Down 

A Muslim pilgrim wears a mask as he arrives to perform evening prayers in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, on October 8, 2013 prior to the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage which begins on October 13.

Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia has already downsized the number of pilgrims allowed to attend this year’s Hajj, which will take place next week, over fears about the spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus. Though not particularly virulent, MERS has an extremely high fatality rate with 58 of the 136 people affected so far having died, 49 of them in Saudi Arabia. Cases of MERS have also been identified in countries including Jordan, France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and Britain.

Scientists have identified the Hajj, where as many as 1.75 million foreign travelers live in close proximity before returning to their home countries, as a major potential flashpoint for the disease. Even in normal years, it’s quite common for pilgrims to return home the “Mecca cough.” More serious outbreaks like meningitis have also occurred. 

One thing that worries authorities about MERS is that has an average incubation period of around 5 days, sometimes as long as two weeks, meaning that an infected traveler could easily return home from the Middle East without presenting any symptoms on arrival. Many will also be returning to relatively poor countries where disease monitoring is not as advanced.  

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last month, Saudi Deputy Health Minister Ziad Memish sought  to reassure pilgrims, saying, “The Ministry of Health received guidance from all the international public-health agencies, including and primarily WHO…plus all the other respectable public-health agencies – public-health England, CDC, European CDC – and we have worked very closely with all these agencies introducing our recommended guidelines for the people coming.”

Unfortunately, one of those respectable agencies, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which says on its website that it has been “closely monitoring” the MERS situation, has developed public health guidelines for responding to the disease, and has worked with authorities in Saudi Arabia and Jordan to investigate outbreaks, is shut down.

The CDC is currently “working with a barebones staff” and a spokeswoman told the Journal on Sept. 30 that it will not “have staff or funding to fight measles outbreaks or monitor seasonal flu activity,” and that “surveillance for emerging diseases like MERS will be limited.”  

Maryn McKenna writes for Wired that “the CDC loans scientists and sends money to the World Health Organization and to dozens of countries in the industrialized and developing worlds” to “track the emergence of new flu viruses that have pandemic potential”. With the shutdown, “we lose some of the most accurate tools” to catch a potential pandemic before it happens.

Luckily the possibility of MERS becoming a pandemic, even with the Hajj, is still thought to be pretty minimal. With some basic precautions, pilgrims, and the people in the countries they return to, should be fine. But it certainly couldn’t hurt to have the CDC running at full speed and keeping an eye on the situation.