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Deadly virus still confined to Mideast

| Thursday, July 25, 2013, 9:33 p.m.

LONDON — The respiratory virus that emerged in the Middle East last year appears to make people sicker faster than SARS, but doesn't seem to spread as easily, according to the latest detailed look at about four dozen cases in Saudi Arabia.

Since September, the World Health Organization has confirmed 90 cases of MERS, the Middle East respiratory syndrome, including 45 deaths. Most cases have been in Saudi Arabia, but the virus has been identified in countries including Jordan, Qatar, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Tunisia. MERS is related to SARS, and the two diseases have similar symptoms including a fever, cough and muscle pain.

“At the moment, the virus is still confined (to the Middle East),” said Dr. Christian Drosten of the University of Bonn Medical Center in Germany, who wrote an accompanying commentary. “But this is a coronavirus and we know coronaviruses are able to cause pandemics.”

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that mostly cause respiratory infections like the common cold, but it includes SARS, the virus that killed about 800 people in a 2003 global outbreak. MERS is distantly related to SARS, but there are major differences between the two. Unlike SARS, MERS can cause rapid kidney failure and doesn't seem as infectious.

Drosten said the upcoming hajj in October — where millions of Muslim pilgrims will visit Saudi Arabia, where the virus is still spreading — is worrisome. On Thursday, WHO said in a statement that the risk of an individual traveler to Mecca catching MERS was considered “very low.”

In the latest study, researchers found 42 of the 47 cases in Saudi Arabia needed intensive care. Of those, 34 patients deteriorated so badly within a week they needed a breathing machine. That was up to five days earlier than was the case with SARS. Most of the MERS cases were in older men with underlying health problems, as one of the biggest outbreaks was among dialysis patients at several hospitals.

The research was published Friday in the journal, Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Ali Zumla, one of the paper's co-authors and a professor of infectious diseases at University College London, said in an email that the rapid deterioration of patients was “not worrying at all since the numbers are small” and most of the patients had other health problems.

Drosten, however, said that could be bad news. “That could mean the virus is more virulent and that (doctors) have a smaller window of opportunity to intervene and treat patients,” he said.

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