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A hospital in the Saudi capital Riyadh. Photo: AFP

Fear grips Saudi Arabia as coronavirus deaths reach 15

WHO appeals for calm as disease confirmed to have 'limited' human transmission


Panic has gripped Saudis in the country's east, where most cases of a deadly novel coronavirus have been detected, as the death toll in the kingdom hits 15.

Scores of people have reported to the emergency services at hospitals in the city of Al-Ahsa in Eastern Province after showing even the slightest signs of a fever.

"I felt the symptoms of a cold, accompanied by a fever," a young man said by telephone on Monday from one hospital where he was admitted and placed in quarantine.

I felt the symptoms of a cold, accompanied by a fever. The symptoms disappeared by the end of the day, but I am still kept in a quarantine with other patients, which scares me

"I came to hospital. The symptoms disappeared by the end of the day, but I am still kept in a quarantine with other patients, which scares me," he said, asking to remain anonymous.

Anyone showing possible symptoms of the virus after being admitted to hospitals in Al-Ahsa region had been placed in isolation, Saudi authorities said.

Fifteen of the 28 people who have contracted the coronavirus in Saudi Arabia since August have died. Thirteen cases have been detected in the King Fahd hospital, in Al-Ahsa.

In all, 38 cases have been reported worldwide since the virus was detected in September, with 18 of the victims dying, according to the World Heath Organisation.

Despite announcing over the weekend that the disease appeared to be capable of "limited" human-to-human transmission, the WHO has also tried to calm panic over the disease.

On Monday, it called on people in France, where two confirmed cases were recorded at the weekend, to stay calm and not overburden hospitals.

WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said the chances were "very small" that anyone in France had the disease at present.

While the virus has been deadliest in Saudi Arabia, cases have also been reported in Jordan, Germany and Britain.

The virus is a cousin of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which emerged in east Asia a decade ago before killing 874 people worldwide, including 299 in Hong Kong.

Keiji Fakuda, WHO's assistant director general for health security and environment, told a Riyadh news conference on Sunday that the new virus posed an "important and major challenge" for countries affected and for the world generally.

He said experts were still grappling to understand all aspects of the virus and how humans became infected, stressing, however, that "this new virus is not the Sars virus."

"This is a new infection and there are also many gaps in our knowledge that will inevitably take time to fill in," a WHO statement cited Fukuda as saying.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Fear grips Saudis as coronavirus toll hits 15