October 27, 2014 / 10:48 AM / 5 years ago

Rise in MERS cases prompts Saudi warning to residents

A Muslim pilgrim wears a protective mask in the emergency department at Al-Noor Specialist Hospital in Mecca September 30, 2014. REUTERS/ Muhammad hamed

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry on Monday urged residents of the world’s top oil exporter to renew precautions against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) after a rise in new cases of the disease since early September.

The Health Ministry has announced a total of 23 confirmed new cases this month of the virus, which causes coughing, fever and sometimes fatal pneumonia. In addition to the 12 cases detected in September, this brings the total number in the kingdom to 777 since it was identified in 2012, of which 331 died.

Other cases have been found elsewhere in the Middle East, in European countries, the Far East and in the United States, but many of those were found in people who had traveled in Saudi Arabia.

“The Health Ministry... urged adherence to preventative measures to curb the spread of the disease, and to avoiding contact with infected camels, and an emphasis on measures to combat infection in health facilities,” said a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

The increase in cases in October has been evident across the country, Health Ministry figures show, with seven confirmed cases in Riyadh, six in Mecca, five in Taif and one each in Medina, al-Jouf, Najran, Hofuf and Jubail. Three of the new cases were health workers.

Scientists are not sure of the origin of the virus, but several studies have linked it to camels and some experts think it is being passed to humans through close physical contact or through the consumption of camel meat or camel milk.

The disease can then spread between people, and the largest previous outbreaks, including one in Jeddah in April and May that infected hundreds, have been linked to poor infection control procedures in hospitals.

International health monitors had worried that the disease might be spread abroad through the haj pilgrimage, which took place early this month in Mecca.

Saudi authorities said at the end of haj that they had not detected any new cases of MERS among pilgrims, but of the new cases confirmed in October, seven were in the pilgrimage centers of Mecca and Medina and five in nearby Taif, which many pilgrims also visit.

Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Toby Chopra

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