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Nation aims to stem MERS by end-June

WHO says Korean outbreak is not a global health emergency

South Korea’s health authorities said Wednesday they plan to rein in the recent outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome ― which has claimed 20 lives to date ― by late June, taking a step back from its initial stance that last weekend would be the turning point in battling the infectious disease.

Despite the rising number of infections in the country ― which ran up to 162 Wednesday ― the World Health Organization said the outbreak does not meet the conditions for a “public health emergency of international concern.” The term refers to an event that poses a risk to fellow WHO member states and requires a coordinated multinational response.

Korean authorities confirmed earlier in the day another MERS-related fatality, a 54-year-old woman, along with eight more infections. Only Saudi Arabia ― where MERS was first reported in 2012 ― is home to more cases than South Korea.

”Our primary goal is to make sure that the MERS situation would subside by late June, and that the mass outbreak not occur outside the ‘intensively managed medical institutions,’” said Kwon Jun-wook, a senior Health Ministry official leading the MERS special response team.

To date, 11 hospitals caring for most of the MERS patients have been designated as “intensively managed medical institutions,” on which the government’s anti-MERS efforts will be focused.

The list of MERS-affected hospitals can be found on the home page of the Health Ministry, both in Korean and English.

A hospital official in charge of measuring visitors' temperature wipes the sweat off his brow at the entrance of a hospital in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
A hospital official in charge of measuring visitors' temperature wipes the sweat off his brow at the entrance of a hospital in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

”A sporadic outbreak of MERS is possible of course, but we are monitoring the patients ― especially patient No.137 ― to ensure that no more large-scale infections happen,” Kwon added. Patient No.137 refers to an ambulance worker at Samsung Medical Center in Seoul that worked for nine days and came in contact with over 200 people after showing MERS symptoms.

In addition to causing further health concerns, the incident sparked public furor on the apparently poor monitoring of the outbreak by both the authorities and the hospital. The infections that have occurred in Samsung Medical Center alone reached 80 as of Wednesday, singlehandedly outnumbering the United Arab Emirates, the world’s No. 3 country in cases of MERS.

In light of the rampant spread of MERS at one of country’s top hospitals, the ministry announced it will collect information related to everyone who visited Samsung Medical Center between June 2 and June 10, during which exposure to the virus could have occurred.

The MERS response team also urged people who visited the MERS-affected hospitals to alert authorities to the fact. The government is currently running a 109 MERS hotline in 19 languages, including English, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, French and Vietnamese.

Officials added that quarantined people who are unable to cater to needs of children, the elderly or physically challenged can ask for the government-provided services by dialing 129, the ministry’s call center.

The government’s struggle to keep track of MERS is already behind the eight ball for not being able to determine when exactly a 35-year-old MERS patient from Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province had caught the virus.

Identifying the exact location from which he had acquired the contagious disease is considered crucial to ruling out the possibility of the virus having already spread to the general public.

Seongnam Metropolitan Government in the same province also revealed Wednesday that one of its confirmed patients ― a 50-year-old man ― was not put on the government’s MERS watch list despite visiting Samsung Medical Center’s emergency room. His mother, who visited the hospital with him, was put on the monitoring list.

As of Wednesday, 6,508 people are quarantined for possible infection, having jumped by nearly 1,000 overnight. A total of 123 are receiving treatment, 17 of whom are in an unstable condition.

Nineteen have made a full recovery and were discharged from their respective medical facilities.

Of the newly affected, two were members of medical staff at hospitals in Seoul ― one at Kyung Hee University Hospital at Gangdong and the other from Samsung Medical Center, the source of 80 confirmed cases.

The WHO reiterated that there was no evidence of sustained community transmission of the virus in Korea and that it does not recommend any travel or trade restrictions for the country. It urged vigilance, however, from other member states.

“This outbreak is a wake-up call, and (demonstrates) that in a highly mobile world, all countries should always be prepared for the unanticipated possibility of outbreaks of this, and other serious infectious diseases.”

The organization had convened an emergency meeting in Geneva the previous day to review the MERS outbreak, which garnered international attention due to its rapid spread and unanticipated traits.

Based on findings from the Saudi Arabian situation, the MERS response team in Korea initially said infection could only occur when a person has been in a confined area within 2 meters of a MERS patient. But several cases have demonstrated that the infection can occur when a MERS patient is not in the vicinity.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan will visit Korea on Thursday and offer the organization’s evaluation of the MERS outbreak.

Amid the MERS outbreak, other countries are keeping their eyes peeled for anyone who has been to Korea.

A 25-year-old Czech man was recently quarantined and tested for MERS in his home country after showing fever and flu-like symptoms typical of the disease. The test showed that he did not have the virus, leaving the country MERS-free.

The man ― who returned from Korea on May 30 ― had applied for medical services after suspecting MERS.

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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