WHO holds off raising MERS alert level as Muslim hajj looms

The World Health Organization on Wednesday held off from calling for travel restrictions related to the MERS virus striking hardest in Saudi Arabia, after emergency talks on the mystery illness.

In a statement following a session of the UN health agency's emergency committee -- the rarity of which underlined global concerns about MERS -- the WHO said that there currently was no reason to step up its level of alert.

"It is the unanimous decision of the committee that, with the information now available, and using a risk-assessment approach, the conditions for a public health emergency of international concern have not at present been met," the WHO said in a statement.

The emergency meeting, which took the form of a telephone conference of officials from affected countries and global experts, was held in two parts, the first on Tuesday last week and the second on Wednesday.

It came amid mounting concern about the potential impact of October's Islamic hajj pilgrimage, when millions of people from around the globe will head to and from Saudi Arabia.

The WHO stuck to its stance that countries around the world should remain vigilant, monitoring any unusual patterns of respiratory infection, notably if patients have been to the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia, however, has already indicated that at-risk individuals should consider staying away, in order to head off the spectre of a spread of the virus.

On Saturday, health authorities in the kingdom urged elderly and chronically ill Muslims, as well as children and pregnant women, not to perform the annual pilgrimage.

Officials in France, which has a large Muslim community, meanwhile said they had been informed that Saudi Arabia would not be issuing visas to such individuals.

MERS, short for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, claimed its first victim in Saudi Arabia in June 2012.

Since then, a total of 82 cases have been recorded worldwide, with 65 of them in the kingdom and most of the rest with a history of travel to the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia also accounts for 38 of the globe's 45 confirmed MERS deaths.

Experts are struggling to understand MERS, which does not appear to spread easily but which has raised major concern because of the high fatality rate -- currently almost 55 percent.

The disease is a cousin of SARS, which erupted in Asia in 2003 and went on to infect a recorded 8,273 people, nine percent of whom died.

Like SARS, MERS is thought to have jumped from animals to humans, and shares the former's flu-like symptoms -- but differs in that it causes kidney failure.