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Rising Saudi death toll from MERS fuels public fear

The MERS death toll in Saudi Arabia neared 100 this weekend as the authorities scrambled to reassure an increasingly edgy population in the country worst-hit by the infectious coronavirus.

JEDDAH: The MERS death toll in Saudi Arabia neared 100 this weekend as the authorities scrambled to reassure an increasingly edgy population in the country worst-hit by the infectious coronavirus.

Public fears have been fuelled by a rapid rise in the number of fatalities from the respiratory infection, with 31 people dying this month -- almost a third of the 94 deaths registered since the virus emerged in April 2012.

A 63-year-old woman, who had also suffered chronic illness, died of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome on Saturday in the western city of Jeddah, and a 78-year-old man died of MERS in Riyadh, the health ministry said on Sunday.

It said the total number of cases diagnosed since the virus was first recorded in the kingdom has reached 323, representing the bulk of infections registered globally.

Experts are still struggling to understand MERS, for which there is no known vaccine.

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

Riyadh dismissed the health minister earlier this month without saying why, and Labour Minister Adel Fakieh, appointed acting health minister, promised "transparency" over MERS.

Panic over its spread among medical staff in the western city of Jeddah led to the temporary closure of a main hospital's emergency room.

At least four doctors at Jeddah's King Fahd Hospital resigned last week after refusing to treat MERS patients for fear of infection.

Ailing King Abdullah himself travelled to Jeddah on Thursday to reassure the public and demonstrate that "exaggerated and false rumours" about MERS are false, said his son, National Guard Minister Prince Mitab.

Fakieh said on Saturday that three specialised medical centres have been set up in Jeddah, Riyadh and Eastern Province.

But people are still not taking any chances.

"I've decided to keep my six-year-old daughter at home and not send her to school," said Umm Muntaha. "Prevention is better than cure."

Schools remain open despite rumours of possible closures, but many have asked parents to equip their children with face masks and disinfectants.

Pharmaceutical sources have already spoken of a shortage of masks in Jeddah because of rising demand.

"Demand for masks has grown 10 times during the past two weeks," said one pharmacist in Jeddah, who has now run out of stock.

The health ministry has not taken any "additional measures" at airports apart from the "usual preventive measures", a ministry official said.

MERS infections are rising steadily just months ahead of the annual Haj pilgrimage to the Muslim sacred sites in Mecca and Medina, which this year comes in September.

Pilgrims continue to visit Mecca for the lesser umrah pilgrimage, which can be performed at any time.

The Haj ministry has not yet taken any special MERS-related measures.

"We have not distributed masks and not taken any preventive measures," ministry undersecretary Abdullah Marghalani said.

"We have not received any instructions about the virus and how to immunise umrah pilgrims against it."

MERS has not had any impact on the numbers of pilgrims, Marghalani told Al-Eqtisadiah daily, adding that some 3.8 million pilgrims have visited the country this year.

The World Health Organisation announced on Wednesday that it had offered to send international experts to Saudi Arabia to investigate "any evolving risk" associated with the transmission pattern of the virus.

A recent study said the virus has been "extraordinarily common" in camels for at least 20 years, and it may have been passed from the animals to humans and now evolved.

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