CAIRO — With the appearance of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, in the Arab world’s most populous country, health officials face a tough new challenge in confronting the often lethal virus.
Egypt’s Ministry of Health said Saturday that the country’s first case had been discovered, identifying the patient as a 27-year-old Egyptian man who had been living and working in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh. He was placed in quarantine at a Cairo hospital immediately upon his return.
The news came hours after Saudi Arabia, where the virus first appeared in 2012, announced five new MERS deaths. That brought the fatality toll in the kingdom to 92, with more than 300 cases diagnosed.
In addition, an Indonesian man who had traveled to Saudi Arabia died Friday after returning home. The virus has also been found elsewhere in the Middle East, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, which has reported seven new laboratory-confirmed cases, the United Nations’ World Health Organization said Saturday.
MERS is a coronavirus similar to the one that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, which appeared in Asia more than a decade ago. But the new virus is deadlier than SARS, killing about one in three of those who fall ill. Its hallmarks are flu-like symptoms, including fever and coughing. Patients sometimes develop pneumonia.
No vaccine exists. The WHO has called for urgent research on the virus and its properties.
The spread of the disease to Egypt raises troubling health-policy questions. Even with a sophisticated medical system, Saudi Arabia has been struggling to halt the spread of the virus, whose transmission method is poorly understood. Last week, the kingdom’s minister of health was sacked after an increase in the number of cases.
Egypt, with its dilapidated public-health apparatus, ponderous bureaucracy and a less than transparent mode of governance, might have even more difficulty in containing the virus.
Even before Saturday’s announcement, health officials had said it was probable that MERS had spread to Egypt, because it had been found in a small sampling of camels.
Thus far, the MERS outbreak has not triggered travel restrictions to Saudi Arabia. Observant Muslims around the world journey as religious pilgrims to the kingdom’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The hajj falls this year in October.