JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia – As the virus tore through the city’s largest hospital, jumping from bed to bed and afflicting scores of people, terror filled the wards.
Some doctors and nurses refused to treat the sick or stopped coming to work altogether. Patients panicked.
“Everyone was afraid,” the surgeon, Dr. Mohammed Ahmed, said of the spike in cases this spring.
It was the darkest hour since the new illness, known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, first appeared in Saudi Arabia late in 2012. In all, more than 700 cases have been documented in 20 countries, nearly all of them linked to Saudi Arabia. More than 250 people have died.
The sudden spread of a mysterious and fatal new virus is reminiscent of the early days of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, a related disease that appeared in dozens of countries and killed more than 770 people, principally in Asia in 2003.
MERS circulates most heavily in a region that is the nexus for Islam. This port city, Jiddah, is the arrival point for most of the 2 million to 3 million pilgrims who make the hajj to Mecca each year. Riyadh, the capital, has had the second-largest outbreak, and cases have also appeared in Mecca.
Saudi officials know how urgently they need to beat the disease, and they say they now have the latest outbreak under control. But the fact that the number of cases and deaths has more than tripled since the end of 2013 has led health experts to cite grave flaws in the way this ultraconservative and staunchly private monarchy has handled the crisis.
King Abdullah fired the country’s health minister and his deputy in April.
A World Health Organization panel said this month that the surge in cases that began in April had fallen off, but that “the situation remains serious” and that hospital outbreaks should be investigated for breaches in safety protocols.
Both SARS and MERS are coronaviruses, named for their shapes. Both are thought to have originated in bats and spread through other animals to people. While SARS circulated in obscure forest animals like palm civets that are eaten in southern China, MERS infects camels, which are common in the Middle East. It seems to jump more easily to humans, possibly in raw camel milk, but spreads less readily between people than SARS did.