WHO holds emergency meeting on deadly Saudi MERS virus

LONDON Tue May 13, 2014 1:16pm EDT

1 of 2. A man wearing a mask poses with camels at a camel market in the village of al-Thamama near Riyadh May 11, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser

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Emergency talks on MERS bug

Tue, May 13 2014

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LONDON (Reuters) - Health and infectious disease experts met at the World Health Organisation 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.

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.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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