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MERS Coronavirus Casts Shadow on Ramadan

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Another person has been diagnosed with the deadly MERS coronavirus in Saudi Arabia, where the month-long observance of Ramadan began Tuesday.

The latest case, a 66-year-old man, brings the tally of MERS infections to 80 people in nine countries, according to the World Health Organization. Forty-five people have died since the outbreak began in April 2012.

Saudi Arabia has been hit hardest by the virus, with 66 cases and 38 deaths, according to the Kingdom’s Ministry of Health.

Eight of the most recently infected showed no symptoms before they were diagnosed with the deadly virus, according to the World Health Organization, flaming fears of person-to-person transmission at religious gatherings.

“The recent mild and asymptomatic cases raise concerns about the possibility of large numbers of milder cases going undetected,” WHO said in a statement. “More information is needed about the virus excretion patterns in persons without symptoms to understand the risk they may pose to noninfected persons.”

WHO has convened an emergency committee of 15 experts to help prepare for a worsening of the outbreak. In the meantime, the agency is advising those traveling to the Middle East to avoid close contact with sick people, wash their hands thoroughly and often and avoid contact with wild or farm animals.

Although the virus has not yet landed in the U.S., infectious disease experts are on the lookout for people with respiratory symptoms, according to Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

“[MERS] had its origin in the Middle East, principally in Saudi Arabia, and has occasionally been exported to other countries,” said Schaffner, adding that American health officials have been instructed to quickly isolate, test and treat people with MERS-like symptoms in the U.S. “I think families celebrating Ramadan in other parts of the world need not be concerned in any way. This is not going to suddenly spring up in Nashville.”

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