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Image of a coronavirus, part of a family of viruses that cause ailments including the common cold and SARS. Health Protection Agency/AP

38 people dead from the 'new SARS' - and we're not sure how it spreads

MERS has killed 38 people, mostly in Saudi Arabia – and, like SARS, it spreads between hospitals with worrying ease.

DOCTORS HAVE SAID that a new respiratory disease dubbed the ‘new SARS’ has now killed 38 people around the world – as medical professionals scramble to figure out exactly how the condition spreads between people.

Over 60 cases of MERS (which stands for ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome’) have been identified by the World Health Organisation – with the majority being detected in Saudi Arabia, giving rise to the condition’s name.

However, in a worrying echo of the SARS outbreak ten years ago, doctors say the disease appears to spread with worrying ease – and what’s more, it also spreads easily within hospitals.

“To me, this felt a lot like SARS did,” Dr Trish Perl, a senior hospital epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told the Associated Press.

“In the right circumstances, the spread could be explosive.”

Perl, a member of a team which has published a study on the spread of the new virus within Saudi Arabia, said there were still major confusion about the way in which it was spread from person to person.

Some of the people who contracted the disease while in hospital had not come close to the original infected person, she said.

The team’s study determined that, within the Saudi cluster of infected patients, each individual patient had infected more people than would usually be expected.

For example, one patient had spread the virus to seven others – including other patients who, like the original patient, had been undergoing dialysis.

In the SARS case, such patients had been known as “super-spreaders” – and in some cases were responsible for spreading the condition to new countries.

The biggest difference: MERS kills more regularly

Though the scale of the outbreak remains small – with only a handful of cases outside Saudi Arabia, the majority of them elsewhere in the Middle East – the key fear is the proportion of infected patients who die from the disease.

In the case of SARS, around 8 per cent of infected patients died. So far, within the Saudi outbreak, MERS has killed 65 per cent of the people it has infected.

As long as it is around, it has every opportunity at the genetic roulette table to turn into something more dangerous,” said Michael Osterholm, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Minnesota.

WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan has previously called MERS the single biggest public health threat and acknowledged officials were “empty-handed” regarding prevention measures.

“We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat,” she said last month in Geneva.

At a meeting this weekend in Cairo, WHO will meet with other experts to discuss MERS and to possibly develop guidelines for next month’s Ramadan, when millions of Muslim pilgrims will be visiting Saudi Arabia.

Additional reporting by AP

Read: SARS-like virus claims 65-year-old French victim

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