MERS Coronavirus in South Korea — What’s the deal?

Written by Madeline Sharpe

June 8, 2015

MERS Coronavirus in South Korea — What’s the deal?

Over 20,000 tourists have cancelled trips to South Korea. How come? And the government has closed more than 1,850 schools nationwide due to parental concern? Over what?

What is big in the press right now and causing undue popular concern in South Korea is the appearance of a respiratory virus called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus or MERS-CoV for short. This virus appeared in Saudi Arabia a couple of years ago and caused severe pneumonia and frequently death, especially in elderly people with chronic medical conditions and in some hospital health care workers. While there is still much research on-going, a couple of things are clear:

  1. Camels carry this virus, get mildly sick with it and can pass it to humans;
  2. Health care workers can be infected by patients if they don’t use adequate personal protective gear;
  3. People who are in close personal contact with an infected person, e.g., providing care, can become infected; and
  4. This virus is not transmitted easily from person to person, except under the circumstances just described.

Almost all the cases in the world have occurred in Saudi Arabia, but there have been a few sporadic cases in other countries via travellers from the Middle East.

Ok, now for South Korea. How did MERS-CoV get there? In mid-May, a business traveller who visited several countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, became infected and returned to South Korea during the incubation period. When he became ill with the MERS virus, he visited several hospitals and was eventually hospitalized. During this time, many people working, visiting or staying in certain hospitals, including health care workers who did not realize that the traveller had MERS, became infected. As a result, the number of cases has risen to 87, with 6 deaths.

So, how big is the threat? Not very. First, all the cases so far have been associated with hospitals that cared for sick patients; there is no indication that extensive person-to-person transmission is taking place in the general community. Health authorities are taking appropriate measures to contain the spread, e.g., placing hospitals and clinics on high alert, ensuring proper infection prevention measures are in place, and identifying all the people (2,300 so far) who have been to the affected hospitals and placing them under quarantine in health care facilities or at home. Any new cases are promptly isolated.

If you do not have close personal contact with an infected person, i.e. provide care, or seek medical care in one of the affected hospitals, your risk is pretty much zero. And you don’t have to cancel your trip to South Korea. The World Health Organization has not announced any travel restrictions for South Korea.

In case you are still worried, here is what MERS infection is like. The symptoms of MERS-CoV infection range from almost no symptoms or mild respiratory symptoms to severe acute respiratory disease and death. It starts with a fever, cough and shortness of breath. Pneumonia is a common finding, but not always present. Gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhoea, have also been reported. Severe illness can cause respiratory failure that requires advanced medical care. It can be a serious illness, and worldwide, approximately 36% of reported patients with MERS-CoV have died. No vaccine or specific treatment is currently available.

But bottom line — If you are planning a trip to South Korea, no problem. Enjoy.

Image of MERS coronavirus source:

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