Scientists question Saudi openness on deadly MERS virus outbreak

Friday, June 6, 2014
By Paul Martin
Friday, June 6th 2014

London: A dramatic upward revision in the number of people killed by the MERS virus in Saudi Arabia may signal a fresh approach from Riyadh, but also raises new questions about how the two-year-old outbreak has been handled.

Experts in global health and infectious diseases say transparency with data is critical to learning more about the virus, which until two years ago had never been seen in humans but has now killed more than 300 people worldwide.

And while an announcement on Tuesday that a historical review of the outbreak had revealed 113 previously unreported cases, including 92 deaths, suggested greater openness, some scientists said international health authorities may have been kept in the dark.

“It really calls into question why these cases weren’t reported before – particularly those that are at least two or more months back in time,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

“From the information we have available I don’t think we can tell why (they weren’t reported before). But it’s one of two reasons – one, it was incompetent surveillance that was not properly set up to be able to detect and confirm these cases, or two, it was an intentional effort not to report some cases, particularly the more severely ill and fatal cases.”

Tariq Madani, head of the scientific advisory board in the Saudi Health Ministry’s command and control center, said he did not believe the under-reporting had been deliberate, and was due to a range of factors.

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