The number of deaths linked to the coronavirus outbreak in Iran has increased by seven to 26 over the past 24 hours, authorities say, as the disease continues to spread in many regions of the world.
Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said on February 27 that a total of 245 people had tested positive for the virus -- an increase of 106 on the previous day.
Jahanpour told a news conference that the large number of new cases came from more labs now testing for the virus.
Iran's death toll is the highest outside of China, where the disease emerged in December.
The Middle Eastern country has become the main hot spot of the virus in the region, where more than 350 cases have now been reported. Many of those cases have been linked to travelers who had gone to the Islamic republic for religious visits.
Drawing lessons from what happened in Iran, Saudi Arabia on February 27 suspended visas for visits to Islam's holiest sites for the umrah pilgrimage, which goes on all year round.
It was not clear if the annual hajj pilgrimage, which this year begins in July, will be affected.
A graphic published by Iran's official IRNA news agency showed that people were diagnosed with the disease in 20 of the country's 31 provinces.
The most affected of those remained the central province home to the city of Qom, a popular place of religious study for Shi'a from across Iran and other countries.
Epidemiologists fear Iranian officials are underreporting the number of cases of the new virus.
In an interview with the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran on February 26, public-health expert Kamiar Alaei said Iranian authorities 'don't want to admit that they're facing a major outbreak.'
The Iranian health-care system has the capacity and infrastructure to counter a coronavirus outbreak, but officials have not rapidly and effectively mobilized the country's resources 'due to political concerns,' according to Alaei, who has worked on HIV/AIDS prevention and other infectious diseases in Iran.
As governments ramped up measures to battle a looming global pandemic, Russia's Federal Tourism Agency on February 27 recommended national tour operators suspend tours to Iran, as well as Italy and South Korea -- two other hot spots for the virus -- until the outbreaks there are brought under control.
The move came after Moscow announced it would stop issuing visas for regular and transit travel for Iranian citizens.
More than 82,000 people in about 40 countries have been infected with the new coronavirus, mainly in China. COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, has killed more than 2,700 people globally.
Brazil has confirmed Latin America's first infection, while several other countries including Denmark, Estonia Pakistan, Romania, Georgia, and Algeria have also reported their first cases.
With reporting by Reuters, the BBC, and AP
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