New Saudi MERS cases spark global health concern

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Global health officials are working to contain a virus in the same family as the SARS virus, which killed about 800 people worldwide after first appearing in China.

At least 272 cases of the potentially deadly respiratory virus known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, have been reported in Saudi Arabia. Yemen, Malaysia, the Philippines and Greece also reported their first cases last week, all linked to travelers from the Gulf, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The cases in Saudi Arabia include the first in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Bloomberg reports. 

“We believe MERS is a zoonotic virus, meaning that the virus comes from animals, namely camels, and is transmitted to humans,” Maria Van Kerkhove, a senior research fellow at Imperial College in London and a technical expert for the WHO, told Bloomberg. “The virus can also be transmitted from human to human, which we have seen between family members and health-care workers caring for MERS patients.”

Although the worldwide number of MERS infections is fairly small, the more than 40 percent death rate among confirmed cases and the spread of the virus beyond the Middle East is keeping scientists and public health officials on alert, Reuters reports. 

The jump in Saudi cases is of particular concern because Saudi Arabia is expecting millions of pilgrims from around the world to perform the annual Haj in Mecca and Medina in early October.

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