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WHO to hold emergency talks on MERS virus - Saudi toll rises to 126

GENEVA, May 9, (Agencies): The World Health Organization said Friday it would hold an emergency meeting next week on the deadly MERS virus, amid concern over the rising number of cases in several countries. The UN health agency will host the emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss the worrying spread of the virus, which in less than two years has killed 126 people in Saudi Arabia alone, spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told reporters in Geneva. The WHO’s emergency committee has already met four times to discuss the mysterious corona virus, which surfaced in mid-2012. “The increase in the number of cases in different countries raises a number of questions,” Jasarevic said, without giving further details of the aim of the new talks. The WHO experts will brief reporters at the end of the teleconferenced meeting on Tuesday evening, he said.

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible cousin of the SARS virus that broke out in Asia in 2003, infecting 8,273 people and killing nearly 800 of them. Like SARS, it appears to cause a lung infection, with patients suffering from a temperature, coughing and breathing difficulties. But it differs in that it also causes rapid kidney failure. There are no vaccines or antiviral treatments for MERS, a disease that kills more than 40 percent of those infected and that experts are still struggling to understand. According to the most recent WHO figures, 496 MERS cases have been detected since September 2012.

The Saudi health ministry says 463 of them have been in the Gulf nation. MERS cases have also been reported in the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and even the United States, with most involving people who had travelled to Saudi Arabia or worked there, often as medical staff. Saudi Arabia said on Friday it had identified 10 new cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), pushing the total number of infections in the country to 473.

The death toll from the virus in Saudi Arabia stands at 126 since it was identified two years ago, according to the kingdom’s health ministry. Of the new cases, five were in the capital Riyadh, four in Jeddah and one in Taif, the ministry said on its website. It added that only one of the new cases was in intensive care. The rate of infection in Saudi Arabia has surged in recent weeks after big outbreaks associated with hospitals in Jeddah and Riyadh. The total number of infections nearly doubled in April and has risen by a further 25 percent already in May.

Coronavirus
MERS is a coronavirus like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed around 800 people worldwide after emerging in China in 2002. It can cause coughing, fever and pneumonia and there is no vaccine or anti-viral treatment against it. The World Health Organisation said on Wednesday the hospital outbreaks had been partly due to “breaches” in recommended infection prevention and control measures, but added that there was no evidence of a change in the virus’s ability to spread. Scientists around the world have been searching for the animal source, or reservoir, of MERS virus infections ever since the first human cases were confirmed in September 2012. The recent upsurge is of particular concern because of the influx of pilgrims from around the world expected in July during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Lebanon has recorded its first case of the often-fatal Middle East respiratory virus, the Health Ministry said Friday. The virus was detected Thursday in a man who had checked into a local hospital after feeling ill, the ministry said. It said the case was not severe, and the man has since been discharged. A ministry official said the patient had recently returned from a visit to several Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom has been the focal point of the outbreak of the virus, known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. In Lebanon, the health minister on Thursday ordered that thermal cameras be set up at Beirut’s international airport to check arriving passengers for possible signs of fever, indicating a possible MERS infection.

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