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Health workers wear face masks at the General Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, this week. Photo by AFP
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A deadly virus that is spreading at record speed through Saudi Arabia could go global later this year when the 2014 haj (Muslim pilgrimage) begins, according to an article published by BuzzFeed.

The total number of confirmed infections of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has jumped by a third in the kingdom in the past week. Ten new MERS cases are now being reported every day.

King Abdullah replaced the health minister, Abdullah al-Rabeeah, on Monday amid growing public disquiet at the spread of the disease, which was discovered two years ago and kills around a third of sufferers.

Rabeeah said on Sunday he did not know why there had been a surge but said it might be part of a seasonal pattern since there had also been a rise in infections last April and May.

Health care experts are accusing Saudi Arabia of obscuring information about the outbreak. “We need the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirate’s health authorities to take the stage and help us understand what’s going on,” said Ian MacKay, an associate professor at the Australia Infectious Diseases Research Centre at The University of Queensland. “In 2014 so far we’ve had more cases than in all of 2013.”

A statement released by the World Health Organization confirmed that they were not receiving timely data on the spread of MERS, as they did not have the latest infection count. On their website they advise, ” WHO encourages all Member States to continue their surveillance for severe acute respiratory infections (SARI) and to carefully review any unusual patterns.”

MERS has no vaccine or anti-viral treatment, but international and Saudi health authorities say the disease, which originated in camels, does not transmit easily between people and may simply die out.

Saudi Arabia is expected to have a large influx of pilgrims from across the world in July during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, followed in early October by the arrival of millions of people to perform the annual Haj in Mecca and Medina.

“It took us over a year to get the first hundred cases of this viral infection,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, in an interview with NPR earlier thjis week. “Now in just the last two weeks, we’ve had a hundred cases. … There’s a major change occurring that cannot just be attributed to better case detection. Something’s happening.”

Yemen, Malaysia, the Philippines and Greece also reported their first cases last week, all linked to travelers from the Gulf.