Saudi Arabia's Health Ministry announced this weekend that 20 more people were found to have been infected by the deadly and incurable Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS bringing the total of confirmed cases to 49 in the past six days alone. The number of MERS cases in the kingdom is already 244, 76 of whom have already died of the disease.

MERS is a viral respiratory disease similar to SARS virus. It is caused by a coronavirus known as MERS-CoV and was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. MERS is characterized by coughing, shortness of breath and fever. Those who were confirmed to have been infected by MERS-CoV often develop severe acute respiratory illness. The disease also has high fatality rate with about half of those infected dying of the disease.

Despite the spike in MERS cases in Saudi Arabia, Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabia said that no scientific grounds could yet justify an order for implementing extra preventative measures such as travel restrictions. He also said that he did not know what caused the sudden increase in MERS cases.

Meanwhile, the MERS outbreak appears to have affected other countries as well. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has identified 12 individuals who did not show symptoms but were found to be positive of Mers-CoV following a routine inspection of individuals who came in contact with people infected by the virus. Of the 12 individuals who were placed in hospital for isolation, three were found negative of the virus and will be allowed to leave the hospital soon.

In the Philippines, health officials are tracking down more than 400 passengers of Flight EY 0424 which arrived in the country from UAE last April 15 after government officials learned that one of the passengers was tested positive for MERS. Although the suspected MERS carrier was tested negative of Mers-CoV in two tests conducted after his arrival, the Department of Health (DOH) urged other passengers to submit themselves for testing.

Health experts do not know where the MERS-CoV came from although it likely originated from an animal source as the virus has been found in camels and bats. To date, no travel restriction has yet been implemented from the United States to countries where MERS has widely occurred albeit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged people travelling to or near the Arabian Peninsula to observe safety precautions such as avoiding sick people and hand washing.

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