Ex­perts down­play MERS; S. Korea records 14th death


Ex­perts from the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion and South Korea on Satur­day down­played con­cerns about the MERS virus spread­ing fur­ther within the coun­try, which recorded its 14th death and a dozen new in­fec­tions, but said it was pre­ma­ture to de­clare the out­break over.

Af­ter a week­long re­view of the out­break of Mid­dle East res­pi­rato- ry syn­drome, the panel of ex­perts told a news con­fer­ence that there was no ev­i­dence to sug­gest the virus is spread­ing in the com­mu­nity. The out­break in South Korea has so far been oc­cur­ring only in hos­pi­tals, among pa­tients, fam­ily mem­bers who vis­ited them and med­i­cal staff treat­ing them.

The virus has spread at a pat­tern sim­i­lar to pre­vi­ous out­breaks in the Mid­dle East, and the se­quenc­ing stud­ies of sam­ples from South Korea show no signs that the virus has in­creased its abil­ity to trans­mit be­tween hu­mans, said WHO As­sis­tant Direc­tor Keiji Fukuda.

While the in­fec­tions seem to be stag­nat­ing, the South Korean gov­ern­ment must con­tinue to main­tain strong con­trol mea­sures, such as thor­oughly trac­ing pa­tients’ con­tacts and pre­vent­ing sus­pected pa­tients from trav­el­ing, be­cause it’s still early to de­clare the sit­u­a­tion over, he said.

The con­tin­ued dis­cov­ery of new cases has cre­ated an im­pres­sion that the out­break is get­ting big­ger, but Fukuda noted that many of the cases be­ing re­ported were of peo­ple who were in­fected in the past. New in­fec­tions ap­pear to be de­clin­ing, which sug­gests that the gov­ern­ment’s con­trol mea­sures are hav­ing an im­pact, he said.

“Now, be­cause the out­break has been large and is com­plex, more cases should be an­tic­i­pated,” he said.

There has been wide­spread fear here of the poorly un­der­stood dis­ease, which has no vac­cine and had a mor­tal­ity rate as high as 40 per­cent in pre­vi­ous out­breaks. There also had been grow­ing crit­i­cism over fail­ures by health work­ers and the gov­ern­ment to ini­tially rec­og­nize and quickly con­tain the dis­ease.

Fukuda said that over­crowded emer­gency rooms and hos­pi­tal wards might have con­trib­uted to a wider-than-ex­pected trans­mis­sion of the virus, which usu­ally spreads poorly be­tween peo­ple. South Korea’s habits of “doc­tor shop­ping” — vis­it­ing mul­ti­ple fa­cil­i­ties to treat the same in­fec­tion — and the cus­tom of hav­ing many friends and fam­ily mem­bers vis­it­ing hos­pi­tal­ized pa­tients might have also fa­cil­i­tated the spread, he said.

A 67-year-old woman who had been com­bat­ing thy­roid prob­lems and high blood pres­sure be­fore she was con­firmed as hav­ing MERS died early Satur­day, be­com­ing South Korea’s 14th fa­tal­ity from the virus, the Health Min­istry said.

Nearly 140 peo­ple in the coun­try have been di­ag­nosed with MERS since last month — in­clud­ing 12 new cases re­ported Satur­day — in the largest out­break out­side Saudi Ara­bia. Among those in­fected, 16 are in se­ri­ous con­di­tion, Jeong Eun-kyeong, a se­nior of­fi­cial from the Korea Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, told re­porters.

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