MERS spread shows signs of slowing in S Korea

Women (C) wearing face masks walk in a shopping district in Seoul on June 19, 2015. Photo: AFP

Almost a month after the first case of Middle East respiratory syndrome was confirmed in South Korea, the outbreak is showing signs of losing steam, the nation's health officials announced Friday.

Korea marked the lowest daily increase of confirmed MERS cases Friday since June 3. The number of those quarantined also dropped significantly, to 5,930 from 6,729 the day before.

The Health Ministry confirmed only one new case Friday, as well as one MERS death, which raised the death toll to 24. The fatality rate remained 14.5 percent of as of Friday afternoon. More than 90 percent of the deceased either had preexisting medical conditions, especially lung or kidney diseases, or were aged 50 or older.

Among the 166 confirmed cases, 112 of them are currently being treated at medical facilities, while 16 are in unstable condition. A total of 30 patients have fully recovered and been discharged.

Also among all confirmed patients, 98.8 percent were infected at health care facilities. The largest number of them ― 49 percent ― were exposed to the virus at Samsung Medical Center in Seoul.

The newly confirmed patient is also believed to have been infected at Samsung Medical Center, where 81 others were exposed to the virus previously. Most of the 81 patients were infected at the facility's emergency room, where the 14th confirmed patient ― considered a "superspreader" ― stayed from May 27-30.

The 166th patient, however, stayed at the hospital's non-emergency unit, from May 25 to June 5 to nurse his wife who had been receiving treatment there as an inpatient. The 62-year-old is the fifth to be confirmed as a MERS patient infected at the Samsung Medical Center's non-emergency facility.

A radiation therapist and a nurse, who were serving at the hospital but not at its emergency room, have also been confirmed as MERS patients. An outpatient who visited the hospital's orthopedics clinic, as well as a man who accompanied another outpatient to see a urologist at the hospital, have also been infected by the virus in the past.

The nation's 137th confirmed patient was an ambulance worker at the hospital, who was working on a contract basis and therefore hadn't been provided with safety gear.

These cases, along with the 166th, indicate that Samsung Medical Center's inpatients and visitors may have been exposed to the virus even if they were not staying at the hospital's emergency room, and it is possible that additional cases will be identified as having been infected there.

To tackle the situation, the Health Ministry said it would contact a total of 41,930 individuals who either stayed or visited the hospital from May 27 to early this month to conduct a survey for further research.

"We are currently investigating how the 166th patient was exposed to the virus while staying at Samsung Medical Center," said Jeong Eun-kyung from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the Health Ministry.

"One of the possibilities is that he was infected by the 137th patient, who was the ambulance worker, but nothing can be confirmed at this moment."

Health authorities also announced that they were banning another Seoul-based hospital, where one of the confirmed MERS patients was staying along with other patients with kidney diseases, from receiving any more inpatients starting Friday.

The medical facility, Kyung Hee University Hospital at Gangdong, is where more than 100 patients may have been exposed to MERS while receiving kidney dialysis ― a blood treatment for patients with kidney failure ― along with the 165th confirmed patient from June 9-18.

Health authorities also announced that a total of 17 patients, currently quarantined at Asan Chungmu Hospital in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province, will be moved to another facility to be isolated more safely.

The hospital was shut down and all of its inpatients were quarantined in the same property on Thursday, after one of its nurses was diagnosed with MERS the day before. The remaining 48 patients will each be placed in single patient rooms to be away from each other, authorities said.

The ministry also announced on Friday that families of MERS patients will now be allowed to visit their sick relatives at the hospital, should their condition become critical and unrecoverable. All visitors, however, will be required to wear full safety gear, authorities said. The announcement came after a number of quarantined family members could not stand by their spouses or parents at their deathbeds to say goodbye and share their last words.

The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said it would support health authorities by dispatching some 100 military surgeons and nurses, as well as some 200 medical officers and emergency relief agents from the Army Special Warfare Command, to help medical professionals currently in the workforce to control the outbreak at civilian hospitals.

On Thursday, Dr. Margaret Chan, the director-general of World Health Organization, stressed that the public cooperation is critical in handling of the MERS situation, while assuring that the outbreak in Korea can be stopped.

Her comments in Seoul came after a number of quarantined individuals did not follow the guidelines by leaving their houses and facilities.

On Monday, the nation's 141st patient escaped quarantine at a Seoul-based hospital while waiting for his test results, by forcibly breaking the lock on the door. He took a cab and went home, and was eventually diagnosed with MERS and quarantined at another facility the next day.

"When individuals do not follow the advice and guidelines of the government, it is unfair to blame the government," Chan from WHO said.

While Chan praised the Korean government's current efforts to combat the disease, the Journal of the American Medical Association pointed out that Seoul's inept response in the early stages of the outbreak, especially withholding the names of MERS-affected hospitals, may have contributed to public fear.

It also stated that such fear and public mistrust in government can damage the process of handling such an infectious disease.

"Transparency builds public trust," wrote authors Lawrence O. Gostin and Daniel Lucey in their article "Middle East Respiratory Syndrome: A Global Health Challenge" published online in the JAMA.

"Given inevitable scientific uncertainty, health authorities should fully disclose what is and is not known about the MERS-CoV outbreak."