MERS outbreak continues to slow

Photo: Reuters

The number of daily new cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome dwindled to three on Sunday, after South Korean authorities said last week the outbreak appeared to be slowing.

The MERS special response team at the Health Ministry also confirmed that a 63-year-old MERS patient, who had a history of diabetes and heart disease, died at 6 p.m. Saturday.

The daily number of MERS infections has been falling, having peaked at 23 earlier this month. The decline indicates that the worst is over for arguably the country's most serious outbreak since the swine flu outbreak of 2009.

Outside of Saudi Arabia, where the disease was first reported in 2012, Korea has the highest number of MERS cases in the world. A total of 169 cases of occurred within its boundaries to date, with 25 people losing their lives.

Korean authorities have started to discuss the criteria for when the outbreak can be considered officially over.

"(The government) started discussing the criteria for the official declaration, taking into account input from local experts and officials from the World Health Organisation," said Jeong Eun-gyeong, an official from the MERS response team. She added that talk of an actual declaration may be premature, as authorities are still discovering new MERS cases across the country.

Jeong previously said the MERS outbreak would be considered over only when no new cases are reported for about double the disease's incubation period. Considering that the maximum incubation period for MERS is 14 days, it implies the government will announce the outbreak over if no new case is reported for at least 28 days.

As of Sunday morning, 43 MERS patients had made a full recovery and were discharged from their hospitals.

The number of those in quarantine for possible infection also dropped by over 1,000 overnight to 4,035. At one point, nearly 7,000 were isolated for containment purposes.

The government has been keeping track of hospitals affected by the disease, whether an actual infection occurred or a confirmed MERS patient visited the institutions. The most severely hit facility is Samsung Medical Center in southern Seoul, accounting for nearly half of cases nationwide.

Authorities have stressed that all the infections took place within hospital walls, although it has yet to determine exactly when and how some patients ― such as a policeman from Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province ― contracted the virus.

The list of affected hospitals can be found on the Health Ministry's website, both in Korean and English.

After a joint investigation with the Korean government, the World Health Organisation concluded last week that the outbreak in Korea was not a health crisis that called for a coordinated international response.

In addition to the WHO, experts in infectious diseases from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention will visit Korea Monday for a "technical co-operation" with local experts on the MERS situation, the Health Ministry said.

To date, 101 MERS patients are still being treated, 14 of whom are in unstable condition. As the disease attacks the respiratory system, local medical staff have been using extracorporeal membrane oxygenation ― a type of life support ― on some patients to ensure they take in enough oxygen.

ECMO has been used on eight patients so far, three of whom are still on it. Two have made recovery on the device, while three have died despite using it.

Of the 25 lives claimed by MERS, 18 were men. Nine were in their 60s, while eight were in their 70s. The youngest MERS death was aged 49.

About 18.9 per cent of the 169 MERS patients were local medical staff, while the rest were either patients already at a hospital ― 46.2 per cent ― or their visitors or family members.

The virus has infected more men than women ― 61.5 per cent to 38.5 per cent ― and 50-somethings were the most severely hit age group with 20.7 per cent.