Saudi Arabia in the clutches of a deadly new virus that has claimed 56 lives in that country since September of 2012. The latest victim died in a Riyadh hospital Saturday. So far, the virus has not traveled to the United States, but that could change soon.
The virus has been christened MERS-CoV, which is short for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus. So far, 169 cases of the new disease have been confirmed, mainly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Those cases include four reported Friday in Saudi Arabia and one in the UAE. The one fatality was a 73-year-old man who was already chronically ill when he was hit by the MERS virus, Associated Press reports. The UAE-based newspaper The National reports that a 68-year-old Dubai man is now in intensive care with the illness.
The new virus bears similarities to the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus which killed more than 700 people and sickened over 8,000 in 2003, but this new bug is both more deadly and less easily spread from person to person, according to a report by the French Press Agency AFP.
The U.S. Center For Disease Control is monitoring the Saudi Arabia and Middle Easterm outbreak, and on its web site, the agency describes itself as “concerned” about the new disease. Symptoms of the disease, the center says, include “fever, cough, and shortness of breath.”
“CDC recognizes the potential for the virus to spread further and cause more cases and clusters globally, including in the United States,” the Center’s web site warns.
One of the CDC’s main jobs is to keep track of global epidemics and to create vaccines and cures that can prevent and control new diseases outbreaks when they hit the United States. But like most government agencies, the CDC was hit this year with massive budget cuts as part of the congressional “sequester” budget deal.
The sequester cuts slashed approximately $1 billion from the CDC’s overall budget, which includes vaccinations for children and programs to eradicate smallpox. The Center lost $195 million from its Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion programs, $100 million from it immunization programs and $98 million from its Public Health Preparedness and Response efforts.
That latter department is the one that would face the toughest test should the MERS virus travel to U.S. shores.
The Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act of 2010, more commonly known as Obamacare, included $2 billion annually for a new Prevention and Public Health Fund, which would go in part to stopping new, lethal outbreaks such as MERS should it escape the confines of Saudi Arabia and neighboring nations.
But the total funding for that program has already been slashed by one-third, The Washington Post reports, with congressional Republicans intent on eliminating it altogether.