Saudi replaces head of Jeddah hospital as it fights MERS rise

DUBAI Tue May 6, 2014 5:49pm EDT

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DUBAI May 7 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia on Tuesday replaced the head of King Fahd Hospital in Jeddah, the Health Ministry said on its website, as the kingdom struggles with a rise of new cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

The ministry said the move was part of its fight against the spread of the SARS-like coronavirus and "a decisive step... to guarantee the immediate improvement of the medical care service" in the hospital, a major city health facility where a number of coronavirus patients are being treated.

Saudi Arabia has witnessed a jump in the rate of infection with the virus in recent weeks, with many of the new cases recorded in Jeddah, the kingdom's second largest city.

The surge in Saudi cases is of particular concern as the country is expected to see a large influx of pilgrims from around the world in July during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, followed in early October by the arrival of millions of people to perform the annual pilgrimage in Mecca and Medina.

Saudi Arabia has reported 421 cases of MERS since the disease was identified in 2012, of which 115 have been fatal, according to the latest figures posted on the ministry website. The spread of new infections slowed during the winter, but there has been a sudden increase in cases last month.

On April 21, Saudi Arabian King Abdullah replaced the country's health minister amid growing public disquiet at the spread of the disease.

The authorities have at times struggled to counter swirling rumours on social media that they have not been transparent about how far the disease has spread and how effective are the preventative measures taken in hospitals.

Countries in the region, including Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Tunisia, as well as several countries in Europe have also reported MERS cases since the virus emerged. On Monday, Egypt said it was investigating whether a 60-year-old woman had died of MERS.

Last week, the United States said it had its first confirmed case of the disease in a man who had been a healthcare worker in Saudi Arabia. (Writing by Rania El Gamal, editing by G Crosse)

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