By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday that it would help Saudi Arabia dig deeper into deadly outbreaks of a new SARS-like virus to draw up advice ahead of the annual haj pilgrimage, which attracts millions of Muslims.
The U.N. agency, which is not currently recommending any restrictions on travel to the kingdom or screening of passengers at airports or entry points, will sent a second team of experts in the coming weeks, WHO director-general Margaret Chan said.
The virus, which can cause coughing, fever and pneumonia, emerged in Saudi Arabia last year and has been found in 33 people there, killing 17. They are among 44 cases and 22 deaths worldwide, according to the WHO, which has called it the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV).
"Without that proper risk assessment, we cannot have clarity on the incubation period, on the signs and symptoms of the disease, on the proper clinical management and then, last but not least, on travel advice," Chan told the WHO's annual ministerial meeting in Geneva.
The WHO, which sent a first team to Saudi Arabia this month, will provide a fresh risk assessment ahead of this year's haj, which takes place in October.
"We need to get the facts clear and get the appropriate advice to all your countries where your pilgrims want to go to Mecca. It is something quite urgent," Chan said.
Millions flock to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina for the haj, although pilgrims come and go all year round.
CENTRED IN MIDDLE EAST
The virus has also been found in Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, while isolated cases have been exported to France, Britain and Germany by visitors.
Saudi Arabia said on Friday that tighter controls had helped to stamped out a MERS-CoV outbreak in a hospital in the eastern region of al Ahsa, which infected 22 people, killing 10.
"Certain infection control measures were applied because we thought there was some transmission happening in the areas where the patients were clustered. These included the ICU (intensive care unit) and the hemodialysis unit," Saudi Arabia's Deputy Health Minister Ziad Memish told the Geneva talks.
The measures included separating patients or increasing the distance between them, and reduction of direct contact.
Many questions remain about how the new virus spreads and what the vector may be, ranging possibly from animals to surface contamination. Saudi and WHO officials say there has been some contagion between people, but only where contact has been close and prolonged.
Saudi authorities have collected a large number of samples from bats, camels, sheep and cats for testing, Memish said.
Asked about the risk factors for contracting the disease, Memish said: "It seems like being a male is a risk factor, being old is a risk factor; having underlying diseases including diabetes, heart disease and renal failure seem to be putting people at risk."
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Kevin Liffey)