PHOTO: South Korean health officials spray an antiseptic solution while wearing protective gear in an art hall in Seoul.(AFP: Jung Yeon-je)
South Korea has reported four more deaths and a dozen new cases of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) as the World Health Organisation declares the outbreak to be “large and complex”.
In what has become the largest outbreak of the virus outside Saudi Arabia, a 67-year-old woman who contracted the MERS virus from an existing patient became the 14th person to die in the outbreak, the health ministry announced.
All fatalities have been among elderly patients or those who had been suffering serious existing ailments.
Twelve new cases, including an ambulance driver who transported a previous patient, follow only four cases reported on Friday.
The lower number had raised hopes the outbreak might be slowing, although officials and experts predicted there would be more new cases.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and South Korean health authorities have conducted a joint mission to review the outbreak, which has been spreading at an unusually fast pace, with 138 confirmed infections as of Saturday.
“Now the outbreak has been large and is complex, more cases should be anticipated,” WHO assistant director-general for health security Keiji Fukuda said.
“And because of this, the government should remain vigilant and should continue its intensified disease surveillance and prevention measures until the outbreak is clearly over”.
But he praised South Korean authorities for their strong tracing, monitoring and quarantine measures, backed by expanded laboratory diagnostic testing.
Currently, 3,680 people are under quarantine, down from 3,805. A total of 1,249 people have been released from quarantine, including 294 on Friday.
“The number of newly confirmed cases has fallen sharply and there are little risks of the virus spreading through airborne transmissions or to communities outside hospital settings”, the ministry said in a statement.
“Therefore, we ask the people to conquer their fear and engage in day-to-day business”, it said.
WHO finds ‘doctor shopping’ contributed to rapid spread
The joint mission has identified some reasons to explain why the virus has infected a “large number of people in a relatively short period of time,” Mr Fukuda of the WHO said.
South Koreans’ habit of doctor shopping — seeking care at many different medical facilities — and the custom of having many friends and family members visit hospitalised patients, may have contributed to the secondary spread of the infection, he said.
The virus was unfamiliar to most Koreans, making doctors less likely to suspect the MERS virus as a potential cause of infection when diagnosing respiratory illnesses.
“Infection prevention and control measures were not optimal” in some hospitals, with overcrowded emergency rooms and many patients sharing a single hospital room, thus creating an environment for the virus to spread easily, he said.
Mr Fukuda recommended the continued enforcement of basic public health measures to stop further cases from spreading and urged infected people or those who have had contact with them not to travel.
He said there was a “great deal of anxiety” among Koreans over the outbreak, particularly over whether the virus has mutated to make human-to-human transmission easier.
“Based on available sequencing studies of the genetics of the virus, we do not see any changes that appear to have made the virus itself more transmissible.”
The mission has found the outbreak is showing epidemiological patterns similar to the one occurring in hospitals in the Middle East.
At present, it has found no evidence to indicate that there are ongoing transmissions of the virus in communities outside hospitals in South Korea.
Virus weakens consumer outlook
On Thursday, the outbreak forced the central Bank of Korea to cut its key interest rate by 0.25 percentage points as the spread of the virus dampened already weak consumer sentiment.
Businesses including shopping malls, restaurants and cinemas have reported a sharp drop in sales as people shun public venues with large crowds.
More than 54,000 foreign travellers have cancelled planned trips to South Korea so far this month, according to the Korea Tourism Board.
Following criticism the government bungled the initial response, a Seoul hospital was closed temporarily over fears the facility might be another source of mass infection, the first such closure in the capital.
Mediheal Hospital will remain shut until June 23, a Seoul City spokesman said.
A total of 52 healthcare facilities including 18 in Seoul and 16 in the surrounding Gyeonggi province have been exposed to the virus.
Pyeongtaek St Mary’s hospital in Pyeongtaek City, where the first wave of 37 patients were diagnosed, will also remain closed based on the incubation period for the disease.
But Samsung Medical Centre, where 58 out of the 126 confirmed infected people contracted the disease — the biggest single group — remains open after being sanitised.
The first infected patient was diagnosed on May 20 after a trip to Saudi Arabia.
The 68-year-old man visited four medical facilities, infecting other patients and medics, before he was finally diagnosed.