GENEVA (AFP) – The World Health Organization announced Friday it had convened emergency talks on the deadly MERS virus, but said the move did not mean it was hiking its global alert level.
WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said the meeting on the virus, which is striking hardest in Saudi Arabia, would take place Tuesday in the form of a telephone conference of officials from affected countries and experts around the world.
"We really want the international community to be in a position to be ready for any possibility," Fukuda told reporters, insisting it was a "proactive move" rather than a sign of rising alarm.
"It means that if in the future we do see some kind of explosion, or some big outbreak, or we think the situation has really changed, we will already have a group of emergency committee experts who are really up to speed, so we don't have to go through a steep learning curve."
The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia. The number of infections has ticked up steadily, with a flurry this April, May and June taking it to 79.
Forty-three MERS patients have died to date, an extremely high rate of 54 percent, compared to nine percent of the 8,273 recorded patients with SARS, which was centred on Asia.
Experts are struggling to understand MERS, which stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus.
Like its cousin SARS, short for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, it has flu-like symptoms. But it differs in that it causes kidney failure.
In the wake of the 2003 SARS crisis, which sparked global panic about emerging viruses, a special WHO system known as the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee was created.
The MERS meeting will be only the second ever held.
The last was during the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak, which is believed to have claimed tens of thousands of lives, raising fears of a pandemic like the Spanish Flu crisis which killed millions after World War I.
Currently, the WHO does not recommend travel restrictions related to MERS, but urges governments worldwide watch for unusual respiratory infection patterns.