Two months after a new virus from the Middle East killed more than two dozen people in Saudi Arabia, the World Health Organization warned that the new coronavirus, known as NCoV, remained an "active outbreak" and more people might die from it before it was declared gone.
The virus was first detected last year in a 58-year-old Qatari citizen who had traveled to Egypt, the country where the first case in Saudi Arabia — three people with severe respiratory symptoms who later died — was identified.
According to the Geneva-based WHO, the new coronavirus has killed 29 of the 43 people infected, with seven hospitalized with more severe cases. In a report presented Monday to the agency's World Health Assembly, the agency indicated that several of the patients in Qatari hospital had been infected in other countries before traveling to Saudi Arabia.
"With many health workers not returning to their respective countries after close contact with affected patients, the circulation of the novel coronavirus in travel and in close personal contact has continued," the WHO said.
Experts say understanding the infection poses a growing public health problem, with growing numbers of suspected cases in the Middle East and Europe. Although only 20 infections have been reported in total, it's difficult to confirm a case or the nationality of the patient without undertaking additional laboratory tests, which can cost in the range of $20 to $100, experts say.
"We are facing a new challenge," WHO assistant director-general, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, said. "The virus is showing symptoms that are very similar to those seen in SARS and there have been cases outside the Arabian Peninsula."
Although the coronavirus is a new disease, the symptoms — coughing, fever, wheezing, shortness of breath — are similar to SARS, which was linked to 76 deaths. A separate coronavirus that emerged in China in 2002 caused about 8,000 cases and is known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
Since the first person in the United States, who tested positive for SARS, was able to fly to Scotland and then fly to New York before developing severe respiratory symptoms and dying of the disease, the virus has been dubbed a "SARS 2.0."
"We know there is such a thing as 'close personal contact' with the virus, and we know that people with severe disease need to be isolated," Fukuda said. "Our teams are doing intensive investigation about how transmission has occurred. And we're going to keep that focus, that unrelenting effort."
Fukuda also warned against a complacency in thinking all was well with public health and health officials have to continue to collect information and use it appropriately.
"It's good news that the NCoV was a mild disease, but unfortunately that is now behind us. There are still worrying reports of people being infected and requiring care."
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