Mers in South Korea 'under control'

A health worker checking the temperatures of pupils at an elementary school in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, yesterday, as the school reopened after a temporary closure in response to public fears over Mers. Most of the 2,900 schools that closed last Friday have started classes again.

The Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) outbreak is under control and South Korea is safe for tourists to visit, said government officials as more than 2,000 schools reopened yesterday.

This is because the outbreak has been contained within hospitals and is unlikely to spread to the community, they added.

The government is now "very confident" of controlling the spread of the virus that has so far infected 150 people and killed 16 in the country, and there are safety protocols in place to protect not just residents but also tourists.

If all goes well, there should be no more infections after the last day of quarantine for hospitals on June 27, said Mr Kwon Jun Wook, director-general of public health policy at the Ministry of Health and Welfare. There are nine hospitals on the ministry's watch list.

"I am sorry for all the inconvenience caused due to the outbreak, but there is no need to be afraid of travelling to South Korea," Mr Kim Chong, Second Vice-Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, told a briefing for foreign journalists in Seoul yesterday.

"The government has implemented various safety measures for tourists and we hope that Mers will be stamped out quite soon," he said.

These included making sure that more than 3,700 tourist facilities, including hotels, guest houses and recreational areas, now have thermometers, hand sanitisers and surgical masks.

About 16,000 Mers leaflets have also been handed out to raise awareness. Tourists can call a hotline - 1330 - for help.

"We are providing accurate information to promote safe tourism, giving the most recent updates on our tourism websites and working with overseas branches to stop the spread of fear of Mers," said director of tourism Kim Chul Min.

The tourism sector has been badly hit since Mers was first diagnosed in South Korea on May 20.

Tourist arrivals dropped 24.6 per cent in the first 11 days of this month. If the trend continues until August, the ministry estimates tourism revenue would plunge by US$900 million (S$1.2 billion).

There are, however, signs that the outbreak is abating. Five new cases were reported yesterday, down from 12 last Saturday and seven on Sunday.

Strong control measures implemented, such as speedy contact tracing and enforced quarantine, have proved to be effective in containing the spread of the virus, according to the results of a joint study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Korean experts revealed last Saturday.

While new cases can still be expected, there appears to be no more so-called "super infectors" going around now, said Professor Kim Woo Joo, who co-led the joint study with WHO.

The massive spread at Pyeongtaek St Mary's Hospital (37 cases) and Samsung Medical Centre (71 cases) were attributed to three "super infectors" - a 68-year-old man, the first to test positive for Mers, and two other men who caught the virus from him.

Prof Kim said they arrived at the hospital with severe pneumonia and there was a high concentration of the virus in their mucus, which made them more infectious than other patients.

"As long as we don't see new clusters forming, there will only be sporadic cases and the outbreak will die down," he said.

As of yesterday, only about 440 schools have not reopened. Most of the 2,900 that closed last Friday have started classes again, on the advice of the WHO.

This article was first published on June 16, 2015.
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