KUWAIT, May 11 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said people handling camels should wear masks and gloves to prevent spreading Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), issuing such a warning for the first time as cases in the kingdom of the potentially fatal virus neared 500.
Health experts say camels are the most likely animal reservoir for the disease, which the Saudi health ministry reported late on Saturday that seven more people had caught.
MERS is a coronavirus like SARS, which killed around 800 people worldwide after first appearing in China in 2002. There is no vaccine or anti-viral treatment against it.
More than a quarter of the 480 diagnosed with MERS in Saudi Arabia, the focal point of the outbreak, have died. Public disquiet there has grown amid rumours on social media sites about a lack of transparency from officials about the spread of the disease.
The recent upsurge in cases is of concern both in Saudi Arabia and abroad, not least because of the influx of pilgrims from around the world expected in July during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
While the link with camels - which have a special place in Saudi society - is the subject of extensive study among scientists outside Saudi Arabia, it has been relatively absent from much of the official domestic debate.
In a statement on Sunday, the Agriculture Ministry advised people not to come into contact with camels unless necessary and to wash hands before and after if they did, as well as wearing face masks, state news agency SPA said on Sunday.
"It is advisable to wear protective gloves, especially when dealing with births or sick or dead (camels)," it said, according to SPA. It also advised only eating cooked camel meat and to boil camel milk before consuming it.
The statement urged people to report symptoms of MERS in camels immediately.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised people at most risk of severe disease to avoid contact with camels. Saudi Arabia's Health Ministry had avoided linking MERS with camels until a news conference late last month.
However, the Agriculture Ministry statement was the first official notification to those working with the animals. (Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Angus McDowall, John Stonestreet)