This week, 80 doctors and health officials are meeting in Cairo to try to come up with an appropriate response to the virus, whose origin
has so far baffled
The disease first appeared last fall in Saudi Arabia and seemed similar to a
strain carried by bats. It comes from the same family as SARS, which killed 800 people worldwide in 2003, and it similarly spreads through close contact and causes severe immune
system reactions. What's alarming about MERS is that it spreads within hospitals, even when patients are not in close proximity to one another, and its
mortality rate is
much higher -- 65 percent
Saudi Arabia strictly enforces the separation of the sexes, and in another confusing development, more than twice as many men
as women have contracted MERS -- making for interesting case study how cultural practices impact responses to disease.
The author of a recent New England Journal of Medicine study on the virus, Alimuddin I. Zumla, said he didn't know the reason behind the gender difference, but then he offered the New York Times a
"I don't think the virus prefers any gender," Dr. Zumla said, adding that he suspected that Saudi women might be protected by their veils, which cover
their mouths and noses and might help keep the virus out.
Over at Discover, infectious disease specialist
Rebecca Kreston pokes holes
in that theory. The niqab, or face veil, doesn't reduce the likelihood of catching respiratory infections, it seems:
In a 2001 study on the effect of the niqab veil on incidence of respiratory disease in Saudi women, researchers unexpectedly found that bronchial
asthma and the common cold "were significantly more common in veils users;" wearing the veil may have contributed to dense, wet spots close to the
mouth and nose which could faciliate the growth of organisms that lead to infection.
Indeed, in a 2006 study of respiratory infections during the Hajj, researchers did find that
pilgrims were more likely to contract a virus when they stayed at the Hajj longer or when they prayed at particularly crowded mosques. They also found that
while men at the Hajj could reduce the likelihood of infection by wearing a protective face mask, that didn't hold true for women and their niqabs.
(However, the authors note that women sometimes take off their veils when inside and in the presence of other women, so it's not a perfect proxy for a
facemask, which is worn more consistently.)
The NEJM study on MERS found that 50 percent of female cases in hospitals were infected by other women within their gender-segregated wards. But there's still a
lot we don't know about the patients and what they did before they died. Kreston raises a few questions:
Were infected woman convalescing in hospital wards wearing their niqabs and the abaya robe that cover the length of their body, which may have reduced
their exposure to MERS within the hospital environment? Was it the case that the niqab protected women from infection or because they have inflexible,
highly structured and segregated relations with men which negated any possibility of exposure?
It could be that purdah, the system in which men and women in conservative Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia live separate lives, somehow
prevented women from coming into contact with infected men. Describing a Riyadh household where four men fell ill with the virus but none of their female care-takers did, researchers previously noted that the men interacted with society far more than their spouses and daughters did: