The SARS-like virus that has claimed 23 lives in the last few months is "a threat to the entire world," according to the United Nations' World Health Organization.
The virus is part of a family coronaviruses, which can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to SARS (Sever Acute Respiratory Syndrome). However, the new disease is not SARS.
The virus has infected 49 people worldwide as of Wednesday, most of them in the Middle East, leading the WHO to name the sickness the Middle East respiratory symptom coronavirus (MERS-CoV). About half of those infected have died.
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MERS-CoV reportedly acts like a cold virus and attacks the respiratory system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But symptoms, which include fever and a cough, are severe and can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure.
Almost all of those infected had direct or indirect connection to the Middle East, the WHO reported.
"We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat," WHO director-general Margaret Chan said Monday at the 66th World Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland. "We do not know where the virus hides in nature. We do not know how people are getting infected. Until we answer these questions, we are empty-handed when it comes to prevention. These are alarm bells. And we must respond."
Cases have been identified in eight countries including France and Saudi Arabia, according to the WHO. Other European countries include Germany and the United Kingdom.
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No cases have been reported yet in the United States, but infectious disease experts have said it would not be surprising.
"It could happen,"
Dr. Susan Gerber, a medical epidemiologist in the CDC's Division of Viral Diseases, told CNN. "That's why the CDC is working closely with the World Health Organization and other international partners."
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