MERS Outbreak in South Korea Grows as Quarantines Climb and Schools Close

Posted on June 5, 2015

An outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in South Korea is growing although the case total remains relatively small. The sudden arrival and spread of the virus is causing alarm among the public. Time reports that 1,300 schools have closed. So far there are 41 cases and four deaths. However, the case total is expected to rise as at least 1,500 people have been quarantined.

MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. The SARS-like coronavirus is linked to bats and camels. A study last year found that dromedary camels are reservoirs for MERS-CoV. MERS can also spread from person-to-person. Most of the cases have been in Saudi Arabia where there have been nearly 1,000 cases and over 400 deaths. MERS has a high fatality rate of over 30%. However, the actual death rate could be lower if there are asymptomatic carriers. The South Korea outbreak is the largest to date outside the Middle East.

The transmission rate from human-to-human is thought to be low with close contact required. There has been spread in hospital settings, particularly among health workers. Saudi Arabia has experienced problems containing the virus in hospitals. The South Korea cases include local spreading of the virus in hospitals.

The New York Times has an informative FAQ about the virus here. MERS is a respiratory virus that causes fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Some patients also have gastrointestinal symptoms. It has an incubation period of two to fourteen days.

An NPR story talks about the origin of the MERS outbreak in South Korea. As the article notes the virus has not been known to spread easily from human-to-human in the past and hopefully this will continue to be the case. It is a relatively new disease which is why health experts are closely monitoring the South Korea outbreak. The South Korea outbreak began when a businessman returned to South Korea from Saudi Arabia. He may be what is known as a superspreader, a person who sheds a high viral load and spreads a virus to multiple individuals. The businessman is linked to at least 20 MERS cases in South Korea. He visited at least three different hospitals in the country as he was seeking care.

Experts believe it is possible for South Korea to contain the MERS outbreak because it is not thought to spread through the air like a cold or influenza. This is the reason for the large number of quarantines and school closings. If the quarantine method works then the outbreak should quickly peter out once local health officials get ahead of it and trace all the connections to current cases. If MERS is spreading in some unknown way or has started to spread more efficiently from person to person than it will be more difficult to stop. There is no cure for MERS.

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