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Support high for travel screening to stem MERS spread: poll

By Patricia Reaney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Little is known about a SARS-like virus that has infected people in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, but there is strong support around the globe for screening travelers to prevent the spread of the disease, according to a new poll.

An Ipsos online survey of more than 19,000 people in 24 countries showed that fewer than half of people questioned knew much about the disease known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, or MERS, which has infected 88 people and killed 45 people.

Although awareness is low, most people said they are concerned about how prepared their nations are and would alter travel plans to avoid countries where cases have been reported.

"The two important things about this research are that it (MERS) is not at a level yet where it is on a lot of people's radar screens," said John Wright, a senior vice president at the global polling company Ipsos.

"The world isn't panicking over this," he added in an interview, "but they want to know that officials are taking steps to deal with it."

More than 80 percent of people questioned in developed countries said inbound travelers from countries with cases of MERS should be screened for the illness. The number rose to 90 percent in less industrialized countries.

Support was highest in China, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, where the illness has been reported, and Italy, which has also been affected, as well as in Australia, Canada and Argentina.

Awareness about how to prevent infection was also low in many countries.

Last week the World Health Organization (WHO) reported six new cases of MERS in United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, including five health workers and one person who had been in contact with an infected person.

The illness, which can cause fever, coughing and pneumonia, has also surfaced in Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Britain, France, and Germany.

Travel was also a big concern with the majority of people questioned in the poll saying they would cancel or delay travel to a country affected by the illness.

The WHO has said the illness has not reached the level of a pandemic and may just die out. So far it has not recommended restrictions on travel.

The global health organization said it is drawing up advice on travel in relation to coronavirus.

"Clearly travel is going to be affected the most as a priority for people to look into," said Wright.

Ipsos conducted the poll from June 4 to 18, questioning about 500 or 1,000 people in each country. A poll of 1,000 is accurate of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points and one of 500 to plus or minus 5.0.

(Reporting by Patricia Reaney; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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