Health Experts Allay Public Fears in MERS-Hit South Korea

By: Imelda V. Abano,
June 10, 2015 1:18 AM

2015-0611 Health Experts Allay Public Fears in MERS-Hit South Korea

Wearing masks as a precaution, South Korean students wait to cross a street in Seoul. AFP FILE PHOTO

SEOUL, South Korea –  As the country struggles to contain the rapid spread of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), infectious disease specialists here have asked the public to keep calm as the virus “has not emerged in the community at large and is not likely airborne.”

As of Wednesday, MERS had swelled to 96 cases and more than 2,500 people were placed under quarantine for symptoms. At least seven patients have now died from MERS in the country, the largest outbreak so far outside of the Middle East. The government also shut down more than 2,000 schools.

In South Korea, most MERS cases reported have resulted from human-to-human transmission in health care settings, prompting hospitals to maintain a high level of vigilance and adequate surveillance of those infected.

“While there’s no vaccine or treatment for MERS and there are many things unknown about the virus, there is no reason to panic as it is not airborne and 97 percent of transmissions are contracted in hospitals through closed contact with patients inhibiting severe symptoms of MERS. We still have to investigate if it is airborne,” Sung-Han Kim of the department of infectious diseases in South Korea’s largest hospital, the Asan Medical Center, told journalists during Tuesday’s special session on MERS virus at the World Conference of Science Journalists.

Kim said the “likeliness of transmission of the virus” in the communities, subways, buses or other public places “is very low” because, based on health authorities’ preliminary analysis, there is a lack of significant mutations in the virus to make it easily transmissible.

Still, widespread fear has caused face mask sales to surge in the country as people scramble to wear surgical masks in public and crowded places. Normal busy streets and malls are now isolated. Most are now avoiding riding on trains and buses.

“There is no reason to panic. If you think you have respiratory symptoms, you wear a mask so you won’t spread the virus. However, healthcare workers are at risk of infection if they do not take proper safety precautions like wearing a mask,” Kim added.

Kim added that hospitals need to tighten their infection control procedures and observe proper hygiene in handling patients, acknowledging that there was a delay in the initial response to contain the MERS outbreak.

“We have missed opportunities in response to the outbreak. It is important to keep an eye on new cases as well as look into the limited isolation wards we have in the hospitals and the diagnosis. I hope this is an opportunity for the government to respond to emerging diseases,” said Kee-Jong Hong, an immunologist and Director of the Korean Institut Pasteur. “If we have studied the behavior and characteristics of MERS three years ago, then we should have been better prepared. We have good systems in place, good hospitals but what matters is compliance and implementing precautionary procedures.”

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) started working with Korean health authorities on control, prevention and reason of rapid transmission of the virus in the country. Latest data from the WHO stated that about 1,179 laboratory-confirmed MERS cases worldwide have been reported since 2012, including at least 442 deaths.

“Monitoring of the situation and contacts is ongoing and more information is being gathered to better assess the risks associated with this particular event,” according to the WHO statement.

Travel warnings

While the WHO does not advise special screening procedures at points of entry, or travel or trade restrictions with regards to the MERS outbreak in South Korea, countries in Asia are taking precautions.

The Philippine embassy in South Korea reiterated its warning to all Filipinos living and visiting the country to take preventive measures against MERS. No Filipinos were reported to have been infected by MERS in South Korea.

“If you exhibit symptoms of MERS such as fever, shortness of breath, difficulty in breathing and coughing, you are advised to undergo voluntary testing at your nearest hospital. If confirmed positive, you are requested to inform the Philippine Embassy so it can inform relevant Korean authorities and refer you to proper medical facilities equipped to handle MERS-infected patients,” the embassy said in a statement released on Tuesday.

Hong Kong and Macau issued a “red alert” warning against travel to South Korea.

Taiwan issued “yellow level” alert, advising its citizens to take special caution and reconsider their trip to South Korea.

Japan is now conducting thorough medical checkups on Japanese and foreign tourists who enter their country from Korea. Vietnam as well cautioned its citizens working in South Korea to take precautions to avoid the illness.


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