A new virus responsible for an outbreak of respiratory illness in the Middle East may be more deadly than SARS, according to a team of infectious-disease specialists who recently investigated cases in Saudi Arabia.
Of 23 confirmed cases in April, 15 people died — an “extremely high” fatality rate of 65 percent, according to Johns Hopkins senior epidemiologist Trish Perl, a member of the team that analyzed the spread of the virus through four Saudi hospitals.
Saudi officials said that as of Wednesday, 49 people have contracted the disease and 32 have died.
The experts, who published their findings online Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine, reported that infection occurred by way of person-to-person contact and poses an especially serious risk because it is easily transmitted in hospital settings.
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Worldwide, the overall death rate from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus — or MERS-CoV — is at 59 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That rate is expected to bounce around as new clusters of infection develop.
Most MERS infections have been from Saudi Arabia. No cases have been reported in the United States, but small clusters have appeared in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Tunisia.
Since the virus first emerged in April 2012 with two fatal cases in Jordan, 64 people have been infected and 38 have died around the world. The virus comes from the same family as the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, coronavirus, which killed nearly 800 people worldwide in 2003.
Like SARS, MERS starts with a fever and mild cough that eventually progresses to pneumonia.