While all the cases have originated in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, this new virus has traveled to several European countries as well as Tunisia via tourists, healthcare workers and businessmen. As they say in World War Z, “Airplanes are the perfect transmission medium.” In May, a 65-year-old man died of MERS in northern France and his hospital roommate was also infected. There has been “limited local transmission” among people who had been in close contact with the confirmed cases in people returned from the Middle East.
As the number of cases spread, the association goats were dismissed as the virus’s natural reservoir. The disease is now known to spread through person-to-person contact and the MERS mortality rate has hit 60%. From September 2012 to date, WHO has been notified of a total of 77 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection worldwide, including 40 deaths. This may seem like a tiny amount but the World Health Organization (WHO) has called MERS CoV, “the greatest global health concern.”
Some cases are asymptomatic, which means the infected people can carry and spread the disease without showing any signs of the illness. This silent infection might skew the mortality rate, which would be lower if the asymptomatic carriers were counted.
The majority of MERS victims have been older men. That’s interesting because viruses don’t usually have gender biases. Now Discover magazine has offered a possible explanation. In an article called, “Purdah? I Hardly Know Ya! Social Influences on Middle East Respiratory Syndrome,” it says that the Islamic face veil, or niqab, may be serving as a filter mask, protecting women from infection. In Saudi Arabia, virtually all women wear the niqab as well as the hijab head scarf. So it’s possible the niqab nips MERS.
Author Rebecca Kreston speculates that the niqab protects women from inhaling the virus as well as “limiting contact between contaminated fingers and the mucosal membranes of the face.” Ms. Kreston adds that, “ . . . the prohibition of casual contact between unrelated sexes and the social seclusion of women through the enforcement of purdah may have resulted in an asymmetrical transmission effect, in which only men were exposed and women were unintentionally “barred” from exposure.” Saudi women don’t go out in public as much as men do as they must have the permission of a husband, father, or brother to do so.
Most of the women who have been infected have been either working in hospitals or receiving medical treatment, which put them in contact with other individuals, including male doctors, they might not otherwise have encountered.
It would be interesting indeed if the mechanisms by which Wahabi Muslim imams have isolated, repressed and controlled women in Saudi Arabia turn out to protect them from this easily transmitted virus. Should MERS CoV spread further to infect and kill a disproportionate number of the male population, it’s not too great a leap to see the possibility of women gaining more authority in Saudi Arabia. After all, if the men get sick and die, someone will have to run the Kingdom.
For more information on what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia and live under the restrictions of Wahabi Islam, see my previous post on the novels of Zoë Ferraris. The title of her third book, City of Veils, might predict what Saudi Arabia’s cities will look like in future months.