DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Four more people have died in Saudi Arabia after contracting an often fatal Middle East respiratory virus as the number of new confirmed infections in the kingdom climbs higher, according to health officials.
The Saudi health ministry said in a statement posted online late Wednesday that 18 new confirmed cases of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome were reported in the capital Riyadh, the western cities of Jiddah, Mecca and Medina, and in the city of Najran, along the border with Yemen.
They included a 65-year-old woman suffering from pre-existing health problems who died in Riyadh. Three others who died had previously been confirmed infected either in the capital or in Jiddah.
MERS belongs to a family of viruses known as coronaviruses that include both the common cold and SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed some 800 people in a global outbreak in 2003. MERS can cause symptoms including fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure.
Not everyone who contracts the virus that causes MERS gets sick, while others show only mild symptoms. There is no cure or vaccine.
Saudi Arabia, which has been the site of most MERS infections, has reported 449 cases and 121 deaths from the virus since it was first identified in 2012.
The virus has since spread to other parts of the world, including the United States, which recently confirmed its first case in a health care worker returning from Saudi Arabia.
Scientists believe camels may play a role in primary infections. The disease can then spread between people, but typically only if they are in close contact with one another. Many of those infected have been health-care workers.
Among those who died this week after contracting the virus was a Filipino nurse working in Riyadh, according to Carmelita Dimzon, head of the Philippines' Overseas Workers Welfare Administration.
The World Health Organization said Wednesday that a team of its experts has completed a five-day mission to the kingdom to help health authorities there assess a recent rise in cases.
Their mission included meetings with health officials in the capital and visits to two major hospitals in Jiddah, which has been the site of a number of recent infections. The WHO noted that most human-to-human infections have occurred in health-care facilities.
Evidence so far suggests that a possible seasonal rise in incoming cases combined with insufficient infection prevention and control measures could be to blame for the rise in infections there, according to the WHO.
"Current evidence does not suggest that a recent increase in numbers reflects a significant change in the transmissibility of the virus," the WHO said. "There is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission in the community and the transmission pattern overall remained unchanged."
It added that there is a "clear need" to improve medical workers' knowledge and attitudes about MERS.
Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.
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