Respiratory disease MERS kills three more in Saudi Arabia

RIYADH, Saudi ArabiaThree more people from Saudi Arabia have died from MERS, a lethal new respiratory virus, bringing the total number of deaths globally to 30.

The country's Ministry of Health said Thursday the three deceased, who ranged in age from 24 to 60, had chronic diseases, including kidney failure. It says they were hospitalized a month ago.

The Ministry also announced a new case MERS, bringing to 38 the number of those infected in the kingdom. It identified the afflicted person only as a 61-year-old from the Al-Ahsa region in the Eastern part of the country where the outbreak in a health care facility started in April.

That recent outbreak has been linked to more than 20 infections, including some inhealth care workers.

The World Health Organization said the new germ is a respiratory infection in the same family as SARS, a disease behind a deadly 2003 outbreak in Asia. It was first seen in the Middle East and sickened more than 49 people worldwide since the agency startedtracking the infection last September.

The disease is similar to a bat virus, scientists have said, but experts noted other animals like camels or goats may play a role in the diseases' spread.

The majority of cases have been seen in Saudi Arabia, with a smaller number appearing in other countries in the Middle East including Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, and United Arab Emirates. Cases have also appeared in the U.K. and France.

A 65-year-old Frenchman who had previously traveled to Dubai in April died Tuesday from the disease. He wasFrance's first case of MERS. His hospital roommate had also developed the disease but did not have previous contact with the Middle East, evidence of the disease spreading among those in close contact.

On Wednesday, French scientists released a study that looked at these two French cases, which found people who have possible cases of MERS may need to be quarantined for several days longer to ensure they no longer have the infection. The doctors discovered the virus in the second patient had an incubation period of nine to 12 days, when previously doctors thought it was under nine. The incubation period refers to the amount of time it takes between exposure to an infectious organism and symptoms appearing.

Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, singled out the threat of MERS in a speech on Monday in Geneva to the WHO assembly.

"We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat," Chan said. "We do not know where the virus hides in nature. We do not know how people are getting infected. Until we answer these questions, we are empty-handed when it comes to prevention. These are alarm bells. And we must respond."

U.S. doctors have also been monitoring the overseas infectionfor months, and have been told by federal health agencies to report respiratory infections of this nature.

The CDC has more information on MERS.