The world’s last major coronavirus outbreak, in 2012, began in Saudi Arabia, where a faltering response allowed the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) to kill several hundred people and spread across the region.
This time around, the kingdom was better prepared, public health officials say.
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Their experience of MERS meant hospitals had already established separate triage units for respiratory illnesses, with specialised ventilation to protect medics from infection.
At least two hospitals also had drive-thru testing in place, which the United States is scrambling to implement, and seven weeks before the first domestic case, authorities developed guidelines to deal with the new virus.
“Their experience with MERS uniquely positioned them because they learned a lot from that,” said Joanna Gaines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which for years has supplied the Saudi health ministry with its only full-time foreign disease expert.
“They know it’s MERS season and they’re already cued up for that. The preparation and processes … really cuts down on your exposure right away.”
Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Kuwait took drastic measures early on to contain the new pandemic, halting air travel, imposing curfews, and quarantining and testing thousands of people.
Saudi Arabia has reported 1,453 infections and eight deaths while Kuwait recorded no fatalities among 266 cases. Initial outbreaks in both countries were linked to foreign travel.
It’s still too early to tell whether those efforts have contained the disease, but the health officials said authorities are doing the best they can by severing the transmission chain.
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