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WHO scientists head to Saudi Arabia to help with growing MERS outbreak

A colorized transmission of the MERS coronavirus that emerged in 2012 is pictured. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases

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A colorized transmission of the MERS coronavirus that emerged in 2012 is pictured. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases

TORONTO - Scientists from the World Health Organization are travelling to Saudi Arabia to help investigate this month's large increase in cases of MERS — Middle East respiratory syndrome.

A spokesperson for the Geneva-based agency says the mission is a response to a request for assistance from the Saudi government.

The number of MERS infections has soared recently, with more cases being diagnosed this month alone than in the past two years combined.

WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl says some WHO personnel are already in Saudi Arabia, taking part in a previously scheduled scientific meeting on health management of mass gatherings.

The two-day meeting, which ends Tuesday, was not called in response to the surge in MERS cases but sessions on the new disease are on the agenda.

Hartl says other members of the WHO team were to travel to Saudi Arabia overnight and the mission will begin on Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia is the site of the world's largest annual pilgrimage, the Hajj. A world leader in health management of mass gatherings, it hosts the WHO collaborating centre for mass gatherings medicine, one of four WHO collaborating centres that research and advise on public health related to events like large pilgrimages, the Olympics and soccer's World Cup.

The first known cases of MERS occurred in April 2012 and between then and the end of March of this year, 207 cases were reported by the WHO or affected Middle East countries.

But April has seen a sharp increase in cases, mostly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The WHO's official count lags far behind those announced by affected countries, which now totals more than 425 cases and over 100 deaths.

At least some of the increase comes from hospital-related outbreaks in Jidda, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, UAE. But a flurry of cases has also been reported from the Saudi capital, Riyadh. And in the past few weeks Greece, Malaysia, the Philippines and Jordan have seen cases in travellers who had recently returned from Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

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