x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sars-like coronavirus shatters Saudi family hurt by grief

A family in Saudi Arabia didn’t know why they lost their father and their grief was magnified as several members subsequently became ill with a Sars-like coronavirus.

HOFUF, SAUDI ARABIA // On the third day after his father's death from a respiratory infection, Hussein Al Sheikh began to feel feverish.

Shortly afterwards, says Mr Al Sheikh, 27, "I was almost dead".

Mr Al Sheikh, who had often visited his father's bedside in his last days, was admitted to intensive care in a hospital in Dhahran, in the Eastern Province.

Then his brother, Abdullah, and later his sister, Hanan, fell ill, and needed treatment in hospitals in the nearby district of Al Ahsa.

Their father, Mohammed, it has since emerged, was probably a victim of what doctors believe was novel coronavirus, the new Sars-like disease that first emerged in the Gulf last year and has claimed 18 lives, nine of them in the kingdom.

There is international concern because it is a virus from the same family of pathogens that triggered the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) that swept the world after starting in Asia in 2003 and killing 775 people.

Some of the deaths from the new virus were in Britain and France, including cases in which victims had recently travelled from the Middle East. There has been 34 cases worldwide so far confirmed by blood tests.

"My temperature was really high, my blood oxygen levels were very low. I was so tired I couldn't walk for days and any kind of activity made me cough," says Mr Al Sheikh, a PhD student who studies in Canada. To avoid spreading infection, he wore a face mask.

World Health Organisation (WHO) experts this week visited Al Ahsa, a sleepy oasis of about a million people, to work with Saudi authorities as they investigate the latest outbreak.

Much of the attention has focused on the private Al Moosa General Hospital in Al Hofuf, Al Ahsa's main town, where many of those infected, including Mohammed Al Sheikh, were treated in the intensive care unit.

A WHO official said on Sunday it appeared likely that the virus could be passed between people in close contact.

WHO assistant director general Keiji Fukuda says, however, that there was no evidence so far that the virus was able to sustain "generalised transmission in communities", a scenario that would raise the spectre of a pandemic.

A public health expert, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter, says "close contact" in this context meant being in the same small, enclosed space with an infected person for a prolonged time.

Mohammed Al Sheikh, who had diabetes and had been admitted to hospital with a high fever and low blood sugar, never knew what had infected him. He lost consciousness two days before he died.

"The doctors said they didn't know what was wrong," says Hussein Al Sheikh. "During his first two days in intensive care he could talk and eat by himself and go to the washroom. But then it got worse. He was on the highest level of oxygen and they had to drug him. He left without saying goodbye."

After rumours about the extent of the virus in Al Ahsa last week, some families of people who were hospitalised say they were asked by authorities not to speak to media.

There was little sign in Al Moosa General Hospital's reception area late on Saturday that it was at the centre of a global health concern.

Visitors, doctors and nurses hurried down the corridors. Two women in  hijabs waited with their babies outside a door marked "vaccination room".

Hussein Al Sheikh says he believes his father contracted novel coronavirus in the hospital's intensive care unit and that he then caught it there himself during the hours he spent visiting his father in the days before he died on April 15.

But Malek Al Moosa, the hospital's general manager, denies this suggestion and says he believes the patients were exposed to a common source of the virus outside Moosa General Hospital.

Fukukda of the WHO says it is not yet clear how the virus was transmitted.

Of the four members of the Sheikh family who fell sick, only one, Abdullah Al Sheikh, 33, has so far been tested positive for novel coronavirus.

Samples from Mohammed, Hussein and Hanan are still being tested but Mr Al Moosa says it was likely that they also had the virus.

A poster-sized portrait of Mohammed Al Sheikh, 56, a former employee of the national oil company Saudi Aramco, is displayed in the Sheikh family's reception room, where three of his 10 children sat to describe what they call the "calamity" that has hit their family.

"Our father's dream was that we should all live in one house with a big garden," says Hussein Al Sheikh. "He had started building it and finished almost 50 per cent. This is just killing us."