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Saudi Arabia announces 92 more MERS deaths, sacks deputy health minister

Health Ministry data show more fatalities and cases than previously reported

Saudi Arabia has sacked its deputy health minister and hiked the country’s death toll from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) after uncovering more than 90 additional fatalities.

The number of victims from the virus was raised to 282 from 190 following a review of health data. In all, an additional 113 confirmed cases of MERS had been found, bringing the total to 688.

The uptick in the death toll and confirmed cases came as Saudi Arabia sacked Deputy Health Minister Ziad Memish, who has been criticized by some international scientists over his handling of the deadly MERS virus.

Memish was a key figure in Saudi Arabia's efforts to contain the spread of MERS, a virus that causes coughing, fever and can lead to fatal pneumonia.

The virus was identified two years ago and cases have been found in other countries in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the United States. So far, much of the scientific evidence points to camels as being a likely source for MERS infection.

"Acting Health Minister Adel Fakieh has issued a decision today to relieve Deputy Health Minister Doctor Ziad Memish from his position," said a statement posted on the ministry's website in Arabic on Monday. It did not elaborate.

Memish is the second senior Saudi health official to lose his job in six weeks after Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabeeah was fired when the rate of new infections started to rise rapidly in mid-April.

Some experts have suggested that the rising number of infections and deaths could have been stopped well within the two years since MERS first emerged – and would have been if Saudi authorities had been more open to outside help offered by specialist teams around the world with the technology, know-how and will to conduct scientific studies.

Last month, Memish said he was "surprised" by criticism of Saudi Arabia's response to MERS and did not respond directly to the allegations concerning his own role.

David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology, chairman of Public Health England, head of global health security at Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs and one of the scientists who had criticized Saudi handling of the outbreak, said on Tuesday the crucial issues were halting MERS infections and working out how they occur.

"Number one, Saudi Arabia needs to make sure it has appropriate infection control practices in hospitals, where cases are being transmitted, and number two, they need to do the case-control study that will hopefully tell them how people are getting infected," he said.

Asked whether he thought Memish's dismissal would prompt things to move along more quickly, he said: "I don't know that, but I hope so. I would hope the process will speed up, and these things will be done."

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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