Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said she decided to convene the agency's emergency committee for just the second time to help protect travelers to the annual Hajj pilgrimage against the coronavirus that's killed 38 people in Saudi Arabia.
The 15-member committee, which includes Saudi Arabia's deputy health minister Ziad Memish and health officials from six other predominantly Muslim countries, met via teleconference today to decide whether Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-CoV, represents a public health emergency of international concern. Chan last convened the committee to battle the 2009 global flu pandemic. The group plans to meet again on July 17.
"Millions of people are going to Mecca and to Medina: we cannot stop that and we should not stop that," Chan said in an interview at the WHO's headquarters in Geneva yesterday. "We need to say that it's OK to go, but these are the measures that governments must take."
The previously unknown virus has sickened 80 people and killed 45 worldwide, according to the WHO. While most cases have been detected in Saudi Arabia, infections in the U.K., France, Germany and Italy have sparked concern of a global outbreak like 2003's SARS epidemic. Scientists still don't know where the new virus came from or how's it's spreading.
That prompted Chan to say at the WHO's annual World Health Assembly in May that the virus is her "greatest concern." While the pace of new infections has slowed since then, she said she wants to be prepared in case it returns.
"Am I still worried? The answer is yes," she said. "Eventually I hope the disease will burn out. But what if it doesn't? We should always have plan A, plan B and plan C."
Chan, who fought SARS as director of health in Hong Kong a decade ago, said the lessons from that outbreak may have helped prevent MERS from becoming worse.
"We have learned from SARS: if you limit the population's exposure, the disease will die out on its own," she said. "We just hope that this is also what we are seeing. I have learned from too many occasions in the last 40 years in public health. I never let down my guard."