The MERS death toll in Saudi Arabia has topped 100 as authorities scramble to reassure an increasingly edgy population.
Public fears have been fuelled by a rapid rise in the number of fatalities from the respiratory infection, with 39 people dying this month – well over a third of the 102 deaths registered since the virus emerged in April 2012.
A nine-month-old infant was among eight new deaths from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome announced by the health ministry on Sunday.
It said the total number of cases diagnosed since the virus was first recorded in the kingdom has reached 339, representing the bulk of infections registered worldwide.
Among them were four medical staff at a single hospital in Tabuk in the northwest, two doctors – one Egyptian and one Syrian – and two Philippine nurses.
Panic over the spread of the virus among medical staff in the western city of Jeddah led to the temporary closure of a main hospital’s emergency room.
At least four doctors at Jeddah’s King Fahd Hospital resigned earlier this month after refusing to treat MERS patients for fear of infection.
Experts are still struggling to understand MERS, for which there is no known vaccine.
It is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible cousin of the SARS virus which erupted in Asia in 2003 and infected 8273 people, nine per cent of whom died.
Riyadh dismissed the health minister earlier this month without saying why, and Labour Minister Adel Fakieh, appointed acting health minister, promised “transparency” over MERS.
Ailing King Abdullah himself travelled to Jeddah on Thursday to reassure the public and demonstrate that “exaggerated and false rumours” about MERS are false, said his son, National Guard Minister Prince Mitab.
Fakieh said on Saturday three specialised medical centres have been set up in Jeddah, Riyadh and Eastern Province.