Korean MERS Outbreak

Korean MERS Outbreak

June 24, 2015

By Jennifer Bunkley

Following a trip to the Middle East, a 68-year old South Korean businessman falls ill with what doctors initially believe to be pneumonia. Nine days and four hospitals later, health officials conclude that the man is actually carrying something far more serious, and he is soon diagnosed as South Korea’s first case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). In the time before his diagnosis, it is suspected that he infected at least 20 other people.

MERS is a viral respiratory illness first seen in humans in Saudi Arabia in 2012. MERS in its beginning stages appears strikingly similar to pneumonia: fever, cough, and shortness of breath. However, for people with co-morbidities – heart disease, diabetes, obesity – MERS can turn deadly, leading to respiratory failure, kidney failure, or septic shock. According to the World Health Organization, MERS has a mortality rate of 35 percent. The Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) currently has nearly 10,000 patients under a 14-day quarantine period.

The KCDC reports that of the 175 patients confirmed to have MERS, 54 have been discharged, 94 are currently undergoing treatment, and 27 have died. Of the 27 deceased, 25 had chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, or kidney disease. As most new cases of MERS have been contracted within a hospital setting, hospitals are now employing various countermeasures to prevent the further spread of MERS. Such measures include a one-room-per-patient rule for quarantine, limited visiting hours, and entry and exit control.

Addressing the concerns about preparedness for future infectious diseases, the KCDC released a comprehensive press statement on June 24th, stating:

“High-level experts from WHO & U.S. CDC will be visiting Korea this week to provide advice and discuss cooperation plans in order to build a new infectious disease preparedness and response system in Korea.”

To view all of the English press releases from the KCDC, visit Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Press Release.

Despite the fact that the Korean MERS outbreak is the largest ever seen outside of Saudi Arabia, the World Health Organization says that a pandemic is highly unlikely. In fact, since June 4th, the number of new cases has been steadily decreasing. In addition, MERS has an extremely low reproduction rate – or number of people one person typically infects. MERS is very bad at spreading itself, and one person tends to only infect 1 or no people.

South Korea is making plans to begin trials for an experimental plasma treatment for MERS. The treatment uses blood from patients who have recovered from the illness. The South Korean health ministry reports that two hospitals will begin the treatment trials.

If you are in a high-risk MERS area, the KCDC recommends the following

  1. Wash hands frequently with soap and water.
  2. Avoid touching the eyes, nose, and mouth.
  3. Avoid people showing symptoms of MERS.
  4. Wear a mask when going out in public.