The deadly MERS virus is spreading at a terrifying rate

On Thursday, the Saudi Arabian health ministry confirmed 13 more cases of patients contracting MERS-CoV, the acronym for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, as well as two more deaths. MERS-CoV is an infectious disease with no known cure and is considered more deadly than SARS--which killed some 800 people during a 2002-2003 outbreak that first started in China. Since 2012, 83 people have died and 285 people have contracted the virus in the Kingdom alone. It has spread to the neighboring United Arab Emirates. Reports also suggest pilgrims from as far afield as Malaysia and the Philippines contracted the virus while on hajj in Mecca.

What's been truly alarming has been the recent surge in numbers of those infected, with more confirmed reports so far this year than in all of 2013. Ian Mackay, an epidemiologist at the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre at the University of Queensland, has been monitoring the spread of the disease. In the chart he tweeted below, note the dramatic spike in cases in the past month (KSA is the acronym for the Kingdom).

The Saudi health ministry has been criticized for inadequately dealing with the situation. A lack of data shared by the Saudis has made it difficult for experts like Mackay as well as monitors at the WHO to study whether the virus has mutated and become more easily transmissible between humans--a development that could pave the way for a pandemic.

Public health experts and epidemiologists are still struggling to understand where the virus originated and how it spreads--with most suggesting it emerged through contact with camels, and others pointing to bats as prime carriers of the virus.

On Monday, the Saudi government removed health minister Abdullah al-Rabiah from his post, without offering an official explanation. His replacement, Adel Fakieh, promised "transparency and to promptly provide the media and society with the information needed." But that may not soothe local fears. In Jeddah, where the majority of cases have been reported, four doctors resigned earlier this month after refusing to treat MERS-CoV patients. That's hardly a vote of confidence as international health officials and Saudi Arabia's panicked neighbors look to the Kingdom to stave off a potential global outbreak.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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