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South Korea Hit by the Largest Outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome

by Vishnuprasad on June 10, 2015 at 9:02 PM
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South Korea Hit by the Largest Outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome

South Korea has been hit by the largest outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outside of Saudi Arabia, where it was first recorded in 2012.

On June 10, 2015, the South Korean government reported that one more person died from MERS, taking the fatality count to 9. With 13 new cases of MERS reported on the same day, the total number of confirmed cases has increased to 108.


More than 2,800 people have been quarantined, either at home or in health facilities. Over 2,000 schools remain closed in the country.

President Park Geun-hye on Wednesday postponed a scheduled official visit to the US to supervise the management of the MERS outbreak. The president's office in a statement said that the coming week would be a 'watershed' for the country's response to the disease.

"People's worries are growing about not only the spread of MERS but also its negative influence on the economy and society. The government is dealing with the crisis situation with a resolve to end the MERS situation within this week," said deputy Prime Minister Choi Kyung Hwan.

South Korea recorded its first MERS case on May 20, 2015. A 68-year-old man was the first to have been infected by the virus in the country. He had a bad cold after returning from the Middle East during first week of May.

Names of the first infected person, who survived, and his wife haven't been made public.

But according to local news channels, his wife said that the man moved around clinics in South Korea from May 11 to 20 looking for answers for his symptoms. Within this period, he apparently transmitted the potentially fatal virus to at least 30 people, including medical staff, fellow patients and hospital visitors.

WHO Officials Visit South Korea

An expert team from the WHO arrived in Seoul on June 9 to help manage the outbreak. The health officials have linked all of MERS cases in the country to the 68-year-old man, whose condition was confirmed only nine days after he initially sought medical help. The government and health department have also drawn criticism for its lethargic response to the crisis.

Government health officials told national media that they initially held off from testing the original carrier for MERS because the man had told doctors that his only stop in the Middle East was outbreak-free Bahrain. But, in fact, the man had visited the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where many MERS cases have been reported. The WHO says that all cases reported outside the Middle East appear to have been exported from the region.

They also said that patients with the infection tend to visit different hospitals frequently until they are properly diagnosed. This can spread disease. People who were in contact with the initial MERS patient, and have since moved to other hospitals, are reported to have unleashed separate chains of infection in Seoul and Daejeon.

Last weekend, the government revealed the names of hospitals where MERS patients were being treated, allowing anyone who visited the medical facilities recently to come forward for precautionary checkups. Earlier, authorities had refused to name the facilities in an attempt to prevent panic, drawing public criticism.

South Korea has also faced criticism from various nations for failing to contain the spread. Hong Kong has issued a red alert on outbound travel to South Korea, indicating it as a 'major threat'. The authorities have also made it easier for travelers to obtain trip refunds.

South Korean Economy Affected

The negative impacts of the MERS outbreak could hurt the already weak South Korean economy.

According to Sharon Lam of Morgan Stanley's, a leading investment firm specializing in wealth management, the countries retail sales will drop 10% and restaurant sales decline 15% in the current month, assuming the outbreak will be controlled in one month.

"Tourism would fall 20% for two months. This is mainly because it will take longer for tourists to come back. That could reduce 2Q-3Q growth by about 0.5% and annual GDP by 0.15%," says Lam.

If the outbreak gets out of control, the economy would tumble into recession. "That would cut 2Q-3Q GDP growth by 3.0% and annual GDP by 0.8%," Lam adds.

However, things could get even worse if there's long-lasting negative media coverage of the outbreak.

No Treatment for MERS

MERS is a viral respiratory infection. It is caused by the newly identified MERS-coronavirus.

MERS comes from the same family of viruses that cause common cold to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). SARS affected more than 8,000 people and killed 773 worldwide in 2003. Unlike SARS, MERS does not spread easily between humans - at least not yet.

Health officials said that the virus acts like a cold and attacks the respiratory system. MERS can affect anyone from childhood to old age. Though the MERS is deadly, human-to-human transmission is limited, say health experts.

"Although such transmission appears to be limited, health officials are concerned about MERS because the infection can be fatal in up to one-third of cases," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general for the U.S. Public Health Service.

To date, the WHO and CDC have not issued any travel warnings related to MERS. But the CDC recommends precautionary measures to travelers to the Arabian Peninsula. According to the CDC, you are not considered to be at risk for MERS-CoV infection if you have not had close contact with someone who is being evaluated for MERS-CoV infection. Close contacts mean living together or caring the infected.

Scientists have isolated the live MERS virus from dromedaries — two single-humped camels. The scientists reveal that three-quarters of camels in Saudi Arabia tested positive for past MERS exposure. In February, the CDC said that MERS was also found in a bat in Saudi Arabia.

"The way humans become infected from an animal and/or environmental source is still under investigation," the WHO said last month.

Scientists have noted a surge in MERS cases this spring, and a similar increase was also seen last spring. But they're unsure whether the factors that lead to MERS may have a seasonal pattern, or whether the virus has changed to become more easily transmissible.

The most common signs and symptoms of MERS-CoV observed are: fever, cough, breathing difficulties, chills, chest pain, body aches, sore throat and malaise. If symptoms are severe, it can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure. As of now, doctors can treat symptoms of MERS. However, there is no vaccine and no specific medicine that targets MERS.


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