South Koreans have been keeping away from crowded places such as baseball parks and cinemas in their efforts to avoid the deadly MERS virus. Seven people have died in the past month and some 95 other people have been infected with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome which was first reported in humans in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. This recent outbreak was brought into South Korea by a 68-year-old businessman who had been on a trip to the Middle East.
He visited a number of hospitals and clinics when he became ill and dozens of other patients and hospital workers were infected before it was discovered that he had contracted MERS. Since then, nearly 3,000 people have been placed in isolation and 2,200 schools closed. The poorly understood disease – believed to have transferred to human from animals – belongs to the family of coronaviruses that includes the common cold and SARS.
It can cause fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure and has no vaccine and as much as a 40% mortality rate. The governor of Gyeonggi province, which surrounds the South Korean capital, Seoul, said 32 general hospitals were working to curb the outbreak, offering to take in anyone showing symptoms of MERS. “We are fighting two wars,” Nam Kyung-pil said. “The war against the disease and the war against fear.”
The government has been criticised for lack of communication over those infected and for leaving it until Sunday before revealing the names of the hospitals where the sick and their relatives were being treated. “The hospitals that did not receive information on patients have been badly hit,” said the head of the Korean Hospital Association, Park Sang-geun. South Korea, which is very concerned about the economic impact the disease could have on its country, says it believes the recent outbreak may have peaked because there has been a sharp drop in new cases.
The maximum incubation period for those infected by the second “super-spreader” ends around this Friday, experts said, which raises hopes that the outbreak could weaken soon. “I cautiously predict (MERS) will peak today” and be stabilised in the next few days, Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo told politicians on Monday. However, thousands of international tourists have cancelled plans to visit South Korea with Hong Kong issuing a “red alert” advising its citizens to avoid non-essential trips to South Korea.
Although the illness spreads through close contact with those infected rather than air, Hong Kong is worried. “At this stage, the Hong Kong government thinks it is necessary to issue a clear message,” a senior official said, warning of a “significant threat”, Sky News reports.