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A deadly respiratory illness in the Middle East is raising concerns that it could turn into a global pandemic. MERS or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome had been simmering along for the last two years with just a few cases being reported each month. But this month new infections skyrocketed. This week alone, Saudi Arabia announced for than 60 cases. Most of those people are in hospitals. NPR's Jason Beaubien has more.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: MERS is similar to the SARS virus. Back in 2003 there were fears that SARS was going to rampage around the globe and it ended up killing roughly 800 people in Asia before being brought under control. As with SARS, there's no vaccine for MERS, no cure. And MERS tends to kill 30 to 40 percent of the people who get infected. Until recently MERS seemed to be less virulent than SARS, sort of SARS's wimpy cousin. But then all of a sudden there's been a sharp uptick in the number of MERS cases.

Researchers believe the MERS virus comes from camels. Most of the first victims had had some contact with camels. Michael Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He says over the last few weeks something has clearly changed. The virus may be mutating.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: When that virus changes enough, instead of just the occasional animal-to-human transmission, once humans become infected they're now capable of transmitting to other humans. That's what will tip the balance. That is what will cause a worldwide outbreak. And we're very concerned with what we've seen over the past two weeks, that we may be at that point now.

BEAUBIEN: Many of the new cases are among doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers. One of the latest victims in Jetta was the receptionist at the local hospital. Tarkiasarovich, a spokesman for the WHO, says it's critical that clinics in the region tighten infection control procedures.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You see, it's not always possible to identify patients with MERS early.

BEAUBIEN: In some patients, it can resemble a bad flu, others have very few symptoms. Tarkiasarovich says hospital staff should be wearing masks and gloves with all patients until researchers figure out whether it's transmitted through the air or touch or some other way. So far, MERS has killed nearly 100 people, most of them in Saudi Arabia. New cases have also turned up recently in Greece, Malaysia, and the Philippines, but all of them are among travelers who picked up the virus in the Arabian Gulf.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already has a MERS response team in place and they say at the outbreak it's quite like that someone will arrive with the virus. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Washington.

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