Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) cases continue to grow outside the Middle East. The number of MERS cases that have been confirmed in South Koreas increased to 64, an increase of 14 this weekend; and health officials there reported a rise in the death toll to five people so far.
The outbreak in South Korea, which is the largest MERS outbreak reported outside the Middle East, began in May. The first or index patient in the region was a man had returned to the region from a business trip in the Middle East, where he was exposed to the virus, which has a mortality rate of about 30 percent. That man, whose symptoms resembled a severe cold or flu, was hospitalized at St. Mary’s Hospital in the city of Pyeongtaek, located about 37 miles south of Seoul. Since then, 35 other cases of the contagious and incurable virus were confirmed at the hospital and international public health teams have stepped in to try and stop the outbreak from spreading.
Health experts are watching as a second wave of patients develops in Seoul. One of the people infected at St. Mary’s went to the emergency room in Seoul’s Samsung Medical Center on May 27. This is one of the countries largest hospitals. Since then, 17 people who were in that emergency room, including 10 of the 14 new cases announced this weekend, have come down with MERS. One of those 10 died on Friday, but it was not known that he had MERS until after he died. Unfortunately, health officials believe there will be more MERS cases found in the next few days involving people who were at that hospital or people they infected.
To prevent more cases and a rise in the death toll, South Korea is trying to monitor or keep in quarantine people believed to have been in contact with those known to have caught MERS. Reportedly, more than 1,800 people are being monitored in state facilities or ordered to stay at home. Many schools have closed for fear of the infectious disease spreading.
MERS is a relatively new deadly disease that was first detected in Saudi Arabia near the end of 2012. To date, the number of cases are more than 1,200, and most of the 440 people whose deaths have been attributed to MERS caught the virus in the Middle East. The outbreak in South Korea is the largest outside of the Middle East. Just like the initial ill patient in South Korea, the people who have been diagnosed with MERS in other countries, including the U.S., had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in that region of the world.
The Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome is a coronavirus (named for the crown shape sticking out from the virions or virus particles when seen under a microscope). Coronaviruses primarily affect respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts in birds and mammals, but six strains including the common cold affect humans.
MERS is closely related to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that spread worldwide in 2002 and 2003. SARS spread from its first cases in southern China to more than 8,000 people in 37 countries. That virus had a mortality rate of about 10 percent, with 775 people dying before it was contained and the outbreak ended early in 2004.
While SARS is no longer spreading, it like MERS can be found in animals. This MERS human outbreak is believed to have originated in camels in Saudi Arabia. Blood tests show that about 80 percent of camels have had the disease at some point in time.
While still an issue in the Middle East, it is widely believed that the number of MERS cases and death toll will rise in the short term but that South Korea officials are doing everything possible to stop the spread. The MERS cases have been tied to hospital visits and all those believed to be impacted are being watched. They hope that the current virus outbreak will end with those currently under quarantine or being monitored.
By Dyanne Weiss
BBC: South Korea confirms fifth MERS death
New York Times: What You Need to Know About MERS
New York Times: MERS Cases Rise in South Korea, Health Officials Say
World Health Organization: Frequently Asked Questions on Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS‐CoV)