The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a viral respiratory illness that is new to humans. It was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread to several other countries, including the United States. Most people infected with MERS-CoV developed severe acute respiratory illness, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Many of them have died.
In Seoul, South Korea, during the last days of May, an man infected with MERS spent two nights in the emergency room there without being diagnosed, and health officials say he transmitted the virus to at least 80 people in the hospital before being quarantined.
“During that time it is clear this person was coughing a lot and was also mobile in the emergency room,” Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security at the World Health Organization, said at a briefing Wednesday June 17.
South Korea’s MERS outbreak is in its fifth week. Officials announced on Thursday June 18 that four more people nationwide had died, taking the total number of deaths to 23. There were also three new MERS cases, taking the total to 165. Most patients who died were elderly and had other serious illnesses.
But, according to a statement made by the chief of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday June 18, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus in South Korea has not shown any genetic changes since the first outbreak and the risk of it spreading through the general community remains low.
South Korea first reported the MERS outbreak on May 20, when a 68-year-old man was diagnosed after returning from a trip to Saudi Arabia, and confirmed 23 deaths from the disease as of Thursday. The outbreak is the largest outside of Saudi Arabia.
“The virus has been sequenced. So far, no genetic changes have been detected that could make the virus easier to transmit among humans,” WHO director-general Margaret Chan said during a press briefing in Seoul.
“The joint WHO mission with the Ministry of Health found no epidemiological evidence of unique features that suggest new modes of transmission. All of this is reassuring news.”
The spread so far has been limited to hospital settings, but she warned that it is critical to keep up high levels of surveillance and vigilance to put an end to the contagious disease.
“The risk to the general public is considered low as long as transmission is occurring in a confined setting, like a health care facility,” Chan said. “Even if transmission spills over into the general community, such cases are not likely to sustain further transmission.”
On Wednesday June 17, the WHO said MERS is not considered a public health emergency of international concern like Ebola, saying that no travel or trade restrictions on South Korea are needed.
The official said that a lack of awareness about the virus among health workers and the public was one major contributing factor to its rapid spread in the early stage in South Korea. But the government’s follow-up measures to quarantine infected people and trace them have helped curbed the further spread of the disease, she noted.
Although there is currently no vaccine for MERS, research and investigations are under way to better understand the disease and come up with proper treatment, Chan said, vowing to cooperate with the South Korean government in that effort.
“It’s important to know that early treatment during the illness will give you better chances and better prospects for survival,” Chan said.
The latest deaths put the fatality rate of the disease in the country at nearly 14 percent, according to the health ministry.
The former Hong Kong health official, who handled the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003, stressed the importance of communication with the public in a transparent manner to build community support.
The continued discovery of new cases among people who managed to slip through the quarantine measures has raised questions about the government’s ability to control the situation.
“The government has admitted a slow start in the early stage of the outbreak. The government is now on a very firm footing,” she said. “This outbreak can be stopped, though it may take longer than anyone would want.”
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