People wear masks on a subway in Seoul on Wednesday, amid an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. | KYODO
The central government is strengthening measures to minimize any potential impact from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) within its borders, amid an outbreak in neighboring South Korea that had claimed the lives of at least two people as of Wednesday.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on Tuesday that related ministries are working together to beef up measures in an effort to prevent the virus from spreading to Japan.
“All quarantine institutions (in Japan) have been instructed on steps to be taken in case of suspected infections,” Suga said.
He added that he had also ordered the Foreign Ministry to check whether Japanese nationals in South Korea are safe, and to offer them information about the outbreak.
MERS is a viral respiratory illness from the same group of coronaviruses as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the common cold. Some experts believe that compared to SARS, the virus has a much higher mortality rate of around 38 percent, with an even higher risk for elderly patients and those with respiratory ailments, according to the World Health Organization.
The virus primarily causes flu-like symptoms with high fever, a cough and shortness of breath. Although in many cases it remains undiagnosed, it may affect the upper respiratory system or even cause gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea or nausea. In the most severe cases the virus may lead to pneumonia, kidney failure or a life-threatening acute respiratory distress syndrome.
MERS is believed to spread from person to person mainly by infected people coughing and sneezing.
The symptoms normally develop within two to 14 days, and there is currently no cure or vaccine to prevent infections.
On Monday, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry issued guidelines on the disease. They call for medical institutions nationwide to report to public health centers all suspected cases involving patients who have visited the Arabian Peninsula or nearby countries within two weeks and who have lung inflammation or other respiratory infections accompanied by coughs and fevers above 38 degrees.
Ministry officials also urged related institutions to report cases of patients who developed flu-like symptoms after having been exposed to people diagnosed with MERS, including medical staff conducting checkups.
The officials said that contact with camels believed to be carriers of the virus should also be taken into account.
South Korean health officials said Tuesday that a 57-year-old woman and a 71-year-old man who died had been hospitalized at the same facility as the first South Korean patient diagnosed with MERS on May 11, after that patient spent two weeks in the Middle East.
A South Korean man diagnosed with MERS after having traveled from South Korea’s Incheon to Hong Kong on May 26, took the same aircraft used for several other flights, including one to Nagoya the following day. The aircraft had not been disinfected when it flew to Japan.
In South Korea, fears continued to mount after five new cases were reported Wednesday amid confusion over the South Korean government’s decision not to disclose locations where patients were undergoing treatment.
More than 1,300 people who were in direct or indirect contact with patients who have tested positive had been quarantined in South Korea as of Wednesday.
The first case of the disease resulting in death was identified in 2012 in a patient in Saudi Arabia whose lungs had been severely affected by the virus.
Between September 2012, when the first infection was reported, and Monday, the WHO has been notified of 1,154 laboratory-confirmed cases worldwide. Over 400 cases have resulted in death so far, the WHO said.
Before the South Korean outbreak, just a handful of Asian countries had reported cases. Most have been reported in Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Some parts of Africa and Europe have also been affected.