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No cases of MERS virus among haj pilgrims so far: ministry

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has so far recorded no cases of the deadly MERS coronavirus among pilgrims in the holy city of Mecca for the annual haj season, the Ministry of Health said on Saturday.

The death toll from the respiratory virus in the kingdom, where the strain emerged last year, has reached 51, and some health officials had feared there could be a large outbreak in a huge congregation of pilgrims from the Muslim world.

"I would like to assure everyone that were no cases of coronavirus recorded in any of the pilgrims' areas," said ministry spokesman Khalid al-Mirghalani said.

The virus, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), can cause coughing, fever and pneumonia.

The annual haj pilgrimage will start on Monday and more than 1.6 million pilgrims so far have made it to Mecca from outside the kingdom.

"We are taking all precautions, we have labs for testing suspected cases and in case someone tests positive we will immediately isolate them to avoid any epidemic," al-Mirghalani added.

On Thursday, the ministry said two citizens had died after contracting the virus, bringing the total in the kingdom to 51.

The men aged 78 and 55 were both from Riyadh, the ministry said, however no details were given on when they had died.

While cases have been reported in people across the Middle East and in France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and Britain, the vast majority of infections and deaths are in Saudi Arabia.

In the days leading up to the haj, the ministry launched an advisory campaign for pilgrims on how to prevent it spreading.

"We advise pilgrims to wash their hands frequently with soap and, in crowed areas, we highly advise that everyone wears a face mask to cover their nose and mouth," said Mowafak Abu Taleb, physician and head of the haj health department at a hospital in Arafat, one of the holy haj cites.

He said some 22,000 health workers, including doctors, nurses and administrative staff were on standby to help ill or injured pilgrims - around 3,000 more than previous years.

(Reporting by Amena Bakr; Editing by Alison Williams)

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