Koreans told to be alert even as first two Mers patients go home

Koreans told to be alert even as first two Mers patients go home
A South Korean police officer wearing a mask walking through a crowd during a ceremony at the National Cemetery in Seoul yesterday to mark the 60th Korean Memorial Day that remembers those who died in the Korean War.

Ms Susie Kim had a bit of a shock yesterday morning when her mobile phone suddenly emitted the sound of a siren. She checked her phone and found that it was to alert her to an SMS message from the government.

Amid the Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome) outbreak, the Ministry of Public Safety and Security sent the SMS to remind citizens to be vigilant and practise good personal hygiene and avoid contact with people with flu symptoms.

"I think this is a good idea and will be effective," Ms Kim, a 50- year-old real estate agent, told The Sunday Times.

Since the Mers outbreak infected nine more people, including five who caught the virus at a Seoul hospital, the South Korean authorities have started broadcasting health alerts on TV and sending cautionary phone messages to citizens.

There have been 50 infections, including four deaths, so far in South Korea, according to the Health Ministry. More than 1,800 people remain in quarantine, most of them at home.

But there is good news.

The first two patients - a 66-year-old man who tested positive for Mers on May 20 after a trip to Bahrain, and his 63-year-old wife - have been discharged after they recovered, the Health Ministry said yesterday. Two more patients are expected to be discharged, the ministry added.

It also said that 979 people suspected of having Mers tested negative for the disease.

Despite earlier panic over a Seoul doctor possibly spreading the virus to the community when he attended an event where there were more than 1,500 people, the ministry gave the assurance that the outbreak so far is contained within healthcare facilities, and all the new cases can be traced back to the first patient.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also said there is no evidence of airborne transmission or sustained human-to-human transmission in communities, based on current data and risk assessment.

In a statement on Friday, the WHO added that it will form a joint mission with South Korea to study the Mers outbreak in the country. The WHO team, comprising experts in epidemiology, virology and infection prevention, will also "assess the public health response efforts and provide recommendations for response measures".

Mers is known to spread via close contact, usually in a healthcare setting. Of the 50 confirmed cases, 33 caught the virus at Pyongtaek St Mary's Hospital, where the first patient was diagnosed.

The virus is also "thought to spread from an infected person's respiratory secretions, such as through coughing", according to the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health Minister Moon Hyung Pyo has said poor ventilation at St Mary's Hospital may have contributed to the spread of the virus. Traces of it were reportedly found in the facility's bathrooms, door knobs and even an air-conditioner.

Yesterday, media reports said a man in Busan had tested positive for Mers. If confirmed, this would be the first case in the southern port city.

According to Sports Chosun, the man in his 60s travelled to Gyeonggi province on May 28 to attend a funeral where he met a cousin, whose father was warded in a Mers-hit hospital in Seoul.

Meanwhile, the Seoul city government said it would boost anti-Mers measures. There will be closer monitoring of people under home quarantine and a new investigative team comprising 50 experts, including doctors and civil servants.

Kindergarten principal Kim Bo Mi, 50, was seen attending an outdoor agricultural expo held at City Hall yesterday.

Though worried about Mers, she said she decided it was still safe to go out as "the virus is not so potent for a healthy person".

Agreeing, real estate agent Susie Kim noted that the four patients who died were elderly people with underlying medical conditions.

"I think the government is doing its best to contain the virus," she added.

changmc@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 7, 2015.
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