Risk from MERS virus "very low" for haj pilgrims, WHO says

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The risk from a new Middle East respiratory virus for millions of Muslims planning to go to the annual haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia is very low and there is no need for pilgrims to be screened, the World Health Organization said on Thursday.

While it encouraged countries to raise awareness about the virus to help reduce the risk of the virus spreading among pilgrims, the U.N. health agency said it would not be recommending any travel or trade restrictions.

The virus, called the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), can cause coughing, fever and pneumonia. It emerged in Saudi Arabia last year and has spread from the Gulf to France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and Britain.

The World Health Organization puts the latest global toll from MERS at 45 deaths from a total of 90 laboratory-confirmed cases.

Millions flock to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina for the haj each year, and since many of the MERS cases have been reported in Saudi Arabia or linked to people there, some health officials had feared a large outbreak during the haj.

But the WHO said at this time “the risk to an individual pilgrim of contracting MERS-CoV is considered very low.”

It said that any travelers who developed a respiratory illness with fever and cough severe enough to interfere with usual daily activities should minimize their contact with others to keep from infecting them, cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and report to local health services.

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