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

How It Works
Oct. 8 2013 5:25 PM

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

183652662
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.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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. 

Advertisement

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.  

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 23 2014 6:00 AM Naked and Afraid Prudie offers advice on whether a young boy should sleep in the same room with his nude grandfather.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Books
Sept. 23 2014 7:14 AM Fighting the Sophomore Slump, Five Novels at a Time Announcing the Slate/Whiting Second Novel List.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 7:00 AM I Stand with Emma Watson
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.