Deadly virus cases spread in Saudi Arabia; Ebola toll reaches 142 in West Africa

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Saudi health officials on Wednesday reported another 11 cases of a potentially deadly respiratory virus, including the first in the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

Six of the people to have newly contracted Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, were in Jeddah, the kingdom's largest city, with another four in the capital, Riyadh, and one in Mecca, a health ministry statement said. That brings the total number of cases in the country to 272.

Meanwhile in West Africa, a deadly Ebola virus outbreak has taken 142 lives across Guinea and Liberia, according to the Geneva-based World Health Organization.

"We are concerned about these new [MERS] cases in health facilities" in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said in an email. "We are unaware at this point of the specific types of exposure in the health care facilities that have resulted in transmission of these infections."

At least 93 people have died of the disease since it emerged in Saudi Arabia in September 2012, according to the WHO. MERS, which has been linked to contact with camels, is in the same family as the SARS virus that killed about 800 people worldwide after first appearing in China.

Saudi Arabia is consulting experts from Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States on how to combat the virus. The kingdom on Monday removed Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabeeah from office as it moved to fight the outbreak, replacing him on an acting basis with Labor Minister Adel Faqih.

Although most people infected with the virus either have no symptoms or minor ones and are not infectious, critical information gaps remain to better understand the MERS transmission as well as its route of infection, Mr. Jasarevic said.

"Every effort is being made to understand its current behavior and any potential alteration in its behavior," Mohammed Zamakhshary, the Saudi assistant deputy health minister, said of the coronavirus that causes the illness.

In Jordan, a 25-year-old Saudi citizen tested positive for MERS and is in a stable condition, the state-run Petra news agency said Tuesday.

"We believe MERS is a zoonotic virus -- meaning that the virus comes from animals, namely camels -- and is transmitted to humans," said WHO technical expert Maria Van Kerkhove, a senior research fellow at London's Imperial College. "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."

The virus has spread to Southeast Asia, killing a Malaysian man who visited Saudi Arabia, the WHO said last week.

In October, the Saudis expect millions of pilgrims from around the world to perform the annual Haj in Mecca and Medina.

In Africa, Guinea health authorities reported 208 clinical cases of Ebola, including 136 deaths from the hemorrhagic fever, the WHO said in a website statement Tuesday. It said Liberia had 34 "clinically compatible" Ebola cases, with six deaths.

The outbreak, which began in March, is the worst in seven years and the first time the disease has caused West African deaths.

Ebola results in high fever, diarrhea and vomiting, and can lead to internal bleeding. There is no specific treatment or vaccine for the virus, which kills 50 percent to 90 percent of those who contract it, the WHO said.

Since the incubation period for Ebola can be as long as three weeks, "it is likely that the Guinean health authorities will report new cases in the coming weeks, and additional suspected cases may also be identified in neighboring countries," the WHO said. "It is anticipated that most of the suspected cases currently reported by Liberia will be reclassified as discarded and removed from the case count."

Guinea's Health Ministry on Saturday revised the disease death toll down to 61 from 122, saying confusion caused cases there to be duplicated.

The WHO said it isn't yet recommending travel or trade restrictions for Guinea or Liberia based on the latest available information available.



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