GENEVA - The Mers outbreak in South Korea is a "wake-up call", the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned yesterday, saying a lack of knowledge and substandard controls in hospitals had contributed to the spread of the disease.
The WHO urged all countries to be more vigilant as South Korea reported its 20th death from the Middle East respiratory syndrome virus and criticism grew of its efforts to contain the crisis.
"The outbreak really should serve as a wake-up call for countries," WHO assistant director-general Keiji Fukuda said after an emergency committee meeting.
A WHO statement said: "All countries should always be prepared for the unanticipated possibility of outbreaks like this and other serious infectious diseases."
The warning came as alarming reports emerged in South Korea of new cases which had slipped through quarantine measures that already affect thousands.
One patient in the south-eastern city of Daegu developed symptoms last Saturday but continued his normal activities, including going to work and visiting a public bathhouse.
Another patient, an ambulance driver at the Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul - considered the epicentre of the outbreak - continued to go to work by subway for days after developing symptoms, and came into contact with hundreds of people.
The WHO's emergency committee meeting held on Tuesday concluded that a lack of awareness about the virus among health workers and the public in South Korea was a major contributing factor to its rapid spread.
Other factors included the fact that Mers patients were kept in crowded emergency rooms for long periods and the practice of going to multiple hospitals for second and third opinions - so-called "doctor shopping".
The custom of many visitors and family members staying with infected patients in their hospital rooms also facilitated the spread of the virus, the WHO committee found.
However, the United Nations health body said that "conditions for a public health emergency of international concern have not been met".
South Korea's Health Ministry said that a 54-year-old woman who died yesterday was the 20th fatality in the outbreak.
It also reported eight new cases, including four infected at the Samsung hospital. That took the total number of infections - including those who have died - to 162, the largest Mers outbreak outside Saudi Arabia.
The number of new infections had fallen for three days in a row from 12 last Friday to four on Tuesday, when the ministry said it was cautiously optimistic that the worst was over, but the latest number has dashed those hopes.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian Health Ministry has warned pilgrims planning to go to Saudi Arabia for the umrah (minor haj pilgrimage) of the risk of contracting Mers, reported The Jakarta Post.
"This virus comes from the Middle East and we know that many of our people go to the Middle East for umrah, especially during the Ramadan fasting month," Health Minister Nila F. Moeloek said on Tuesday.
"Most patients got infected while travelling to Saudi Arabia. That's why umrah pilgrims from our country have to be careful during Ramadan," said a ministry spokesman.