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Saudi Arabia reports 11 new cases of MERS virus, first in Mecca

ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Wednesday it had discovered 11 more cases of the potentially deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), including what appeared to be the first case in the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

A health ministry statement said eight of the people were in intensive care, two were stable, including a 24-year-old Saudi man from the "holy capital" Mecca, and one showed no symptoms. Three of those affected worked in health care, it said.

Saudi Arabia has witnessed a jump in the rate of infection with the virus in recent weeks, with many of the new cases recorded in Jeddah, the kingdom's second largest city.

Of Wednesday's 11 new cases, four were recorded in the Saudi capital Riyadh, six in Jeddah - the second largest city and the main entry point for pilgrims visiting nearby Mecca - and one in Mecca itself, the statement said.

The jump in Saudi cases is of particular concern as the country is expected to see a large influx of pilgrims from around the world in July during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, followed in early October by the arrival of millions of people to perform the annual Haj in Mecca and Medina.

The latest cases bring the total number of confirmed cases in the kingdom to 272, of whom 81 have died.

MERS emerged in the Middle East in 2012 and is from the same family as the SARS virus, which killed around 800 people worldwide after first appearing in China in 2002. MERS can cause coughing, fever and pneumonia.

Although the worldwide number of MERS infections is fairly small, the more than 40 percent death rate among confirmed cases and the spread of the virus beyond the Middle East is keeping scientists and public health officials on alert.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah replaced the health minister on Monday amid growing public disquiet at the spread of the disease. A day before his dismissal, Abdullah al-Rabeeah said there were no cases of the virus in Mecca.

Labour Minister Adel Fakieh, who has been appointed as acting health minister, said on Wednesday he had just returned from a visit to the King Fahd hospital in Jeddah where a number of coronavirus patients are being treated.

Fakieh said he was pleased that a number of patients, including doctors, were recovering but said that there were a few critical cases still receiving medical care.

(Reporting by Maha El Dahan; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Gareth Jones)

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