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WHO holds emergency meeting on deadly MERS virus

World Health Organization meets as Saudi Arabia reports five more deaths from the mystery coronavirus

Published: Updated:

Health and infectious disease experts met at the World Health Organization on Tuesday to discuss whether a deadly virus that emerged in the Middle East in 2012 now constitutes a "public health emergency of international concern."

The virus, which causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS infections in people, has been reported in more than 500 patients in Saudi Arabia alone and spread throughout the region in sporadic cases and into Europe, Asia and the United States.

Its death rate is around 30 percent of those infected.

Experts meeting at the United Nations health agency's Geneva headquarters would consider whether a recent upsurge in detected cases in Saudi Arabia, together with the wider international spread of sporadic cases, means the disease should be classed as an international emergency.

Global health regulations define such an emergency as an extraordinary event that poses a risk to other WHO member states through the international spread of disease, and which may require a coordinated international response.

In a statement issued late on Tuesday, the WHO said the experts' discussions were continuing later than planned and that its assistant director general for health security, Keiji Fukuda, would hold a news conference on Wednesday to announce the conclusions of the meeting.

MERS, which causes coughing, fever and sometimes fatal pneumonia, is a coronavirus from the same family as SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed around 800 people worldwide after first appearing in China in 2002.

Scientists have linked the human cases of the virus to camels, and Saudi authorities warned on Sunday that anyone working with camels or handling camel products should take extra precautions by wearing masks and gloves.

The WHO's MERS emergency committee is the second to be set up under WHO rules that came into force in 2007. The previous emergency committee was set up to respond to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

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On Tuesday, U.S. officials said two health workers at a hospital in Orlando, Florida, who were exposed to a patient with MERS had begun showing flu-like symptoms, and one had been hospitalized.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama had been briefed about the cases.

"The president has been briefed on this development," Carney told reporters.

"The CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is taking the current situation very seriously and is working in close coordination with local health authorities," he said.

Also Tuesday, Saudi health authorities announced five new deaths from MERS, raising the total death toll in the country worst-hit by the mysterious coronavirus to 152 since it appeared in 2012.

The health ministry also reported four new infections with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome raising the total so far to 495.

The new deaths occurred on Monday, four of them in Red Sea commercial hub Jeddah and one in the capital Riyadh.

Acting health minister Adel Fakieh visited Jeddah's King Fahd Hospital where a spike in infections last month sparked public panic.

Fakieh, who last week sacked the hospital's director, said it would remain one of a number of facilities across the country dedicated to the treatment of MERS.

He told reporters they would all receive new medical equipment to allow them "to offer the highest level of care for patients infected."

MERS is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible cousin of the SARS virus that appeared in Asia in 2003 and infected 8,273 people, nine percent of whom died.

Like SARS, it appears to cause a lung infection, with patients suffering coughing, breathing difficulties and a temperature. But MERS differs in that it also causes rapid kidney failure.

The vast majority of cases have been in Saudi Arabia, but MERS has also been found in 16 other countries, nearly all among people who had recently travelled to the Gulf.

[With AFP and Reuters]