MERS death toll in Saudi Arabia neared 100 on Sunday as the authorities scrambled to reassure an increasingly edgy population in the country worst-hit by the infectious coronavirus.
Public fears have been fuelled by a rapid rise in the number of fatalities from the respiratory infection, with 31 people dying this month – almost a third of the 94 deaths registered since the virus emerged in April 2012.
A 63-year-old woman, who had also suffered chronic illness, died of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome on Saturday in the western city of Jeddah, and a 78-year-old man died of MERS in Riyadh, the health ministry said Sunday.
It said the total number of cases diagnosed since the virus was first recorded in the kingdom has reached 323, representing the bulk of infections registered globally.
Experts are still struggling to understand MERS, for which there is no known vaccine.
It is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible cousin of the SARS virus which erupted in Asia in 2003 and infected 8,273 people, nine percent of whom died.
Riyadh dismissed the health minister earlier this month without saying why, and Labour Minister Adel Fakieh, appointed acting health minister, promised “transparency” over MERS.
Panic over its spread among medical staff in the western city of Jeddah led to the temporary closure of a main hospital’s emergency room.
At least four doctors at Jeddah’s King Fahd Hospital resigned last week after refusing to treat MERS patients for fear of infection.
Ailing King Abdullah himself travelled to Jeddah on Thursday to reassure the public and demonstrate that “exaggerated and false rumours” about MERS are false, said his son, National Guard Minister Prince Mitab.
Fakieh said on Saturday that three specialised medical centres have been set up in Jeddah, Riyadh and Eastern Province.
The first case of the virus was recently reported in Egypt, raising fears it may spread through the region.