South Korea reports fifth MERS death as the number of cases climbs

Monday, June 8, 2015
By Paul Martin
June 7, 2015

SOUTH KOREA – South Korea said Sunday that 14 more people have been infected with Middle East respiratory syndrome and that a fifth person had died. A total of 64 people have been confirmed as having MERS since a South Korean man infected with the virus returned from the Middle East in May. The outbreak is the largest ever outside the Middle East, where most infections have occurred since the virus was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012. The latest fatality was a 75-year-old man who was found to have had MERS after dying, the Health Ministry said.

MERS is a respiratory disease from the same family of viruses as the common cold and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. There is no vaccine or medical treatment for the virus, which has a death rate of around 27%, according to the World Health Organization. However, in the first case of a possible recovery from the virus in the latest outbreak, one person diagnosed with MERS was discharged from a hospital Friday after her body temperature returned to normal and test results came back negative, the government said.

Since the spread of the virus began last month, the South Korean government has faced public criticism for insufficient disclosure of information on hospitals where people with MERS have been treated and the sluggish rollout of precautionary measures. On Sunday, the government released the names of 24 hospitals where MERS patients have received treatment. Of the 14 new cases of infection, 10 are at a large hospital in Seoul. Other hospitals that have treated MERS patients are in the capital city and the surrounding area. Almost 2,000 people are currently under quarantine in hospitals and their homes to prevent the spread of the virus. Experts say MERS can be transmitted only through close contact with a person infected with the virus.

Speaking at a news conference, acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan said the government was taking all necessary measures to contain the spread of the virus. “We’re at a stage where MERS can certainly be controlled because all cases in our country are infections in health facilities, not yet having spread community wide,” he said. The government said it would also track some of those under quarantine by the location of their cellphones. Soon after the outbreak began one person broke a voluntary quarantine and traveled to southern China, where he has been hospitalized with symptoms of MERS. The government is also operating a hotline for citizens to report evidence of MERS spreading. It also sent out nationwide text alerts Saturday asking citizens to wash their hands frequently and to cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing.

Stores across South Korea have reported heavy sales of face masks and hand sanitizer since the outbreak began. The outbreak in South Korea has caused concern in Asian-Pacific countries, which have stepped up precautions against the spread of MERS, including tightening checks on visitors arriving at airports with flulike symptoms. Tourism authorities say that thousands of travelers have canceled plans to visit South Korea since the outbreak of MERS. More than 1,000 schools in the country have closed as a precaution against the spread of the virus. A group of experts from the WHO are scheduled to arrive in Seoul in the coming days to help tackle the outbreak. –WSJ

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