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MERS outbreak a 'wake up call' but 'not a global health emergency,' says WHO

The World Health Organization has said the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in South Korea, should be a "wake up call." The group added, however, that it was not yet a global health emergency.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the United Nations (UN) health agency said although the spread of MERS didn't yet merit being of international concern, the growing number of cases shows how deadly infectious diseases may strike at any time, and urged all countries to prepare for potential outbreaks.

"This outbreak is a wake-up call and [shows] that in a highly mobile world, all countries should always be prepared for the unanticipated possibility of outbreaks of this, and other serious infectious diseases," the Geneva-based agency said.

According to global health regulations, a public health emergency of international concern is defined as an extraordinary event which poses a risk to other WHO member states through the international spread of disease, and which may require a coordinated international response.

Mysterious virus

Almost three years since MERS was first identified, scientists are still unsure how people catch it or where it originated. They suspect, however, that the disease is linked to camels.

As a precautionary measure, WHO has recommended that people avoid contact with the animals, not drink camel milk or urine, and only eat camel meat that has been well-cooked.

The MERS virus causes coughing and fever and can lead to fatal pneumonia and kidney failure. It kills about 38 percent of those it infects.

First German victim

The majority of some 150 reported cases have been found in Saudi Arabia and South Korea. The virus has also been imported via travelers, however, to at least 25 countries worldwide.

On Tuesday, a 65-year-old man from northern Germany became the first German whose death could be traced back to the deadly infection. The patient was infected during a trip to Abu Dhabi in February and died of subsequent complications, despite having managed to overcome the virus itself.

ksb/ng (Reuters, AFP)

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