South Korea shuts 700 schools as officials retrace how ‘patient zero’ triggered Mers outbreak
Around 7,000 tourists – mostly from China and Taiwan – cancel planned group trips to South Korea
Agence France-Presse and Reuters
Girls wearing face masks walk home after school in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, where most of the Mers cases have been reported. Photo: Xinhua
Hundreds more schools closed today in South Korea as officials struggled to ease growing panic over an outbreak of the Mers virus that has infected 35 people, killed two and caused thousands to cancel travel plans.
More than 700 schools, from kindergartens to colleges, have now shut their gates in response to public fears over what has become the largest outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) outside Saudi Arabia.
Five more cases were confirmed today, bringing the total number of known infections to 35, the health ministry said.
The first case, reported on May 20, was of a 68-year-old man diagnosed after a trip to Saudi Arabia. Authorities have begun to shed light on how the virus came to South Korea by retracing the steps of the man, dubbed “patient zero”, who developed a cough and fever eight days after returning from a trip to the Middle East.
Since then, more than 1,300 people who may have been exposed directly or indirectly to the virus have been placed under varying levels of quarantine.
Some were isolated at state-designated facilities while many were strongly advised to stay at home.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye (foreground, left) holds an emergency meeting on how to contain the spread of Mers. Photo: EPA
In Seoul, growing public concern has been reflected in the daily increase in the number of commuters wearing face masks on buses and subways.
And the anxiety has been exported, with the Korea Tourism Organisation (KTO) reporting today that around 7,000 tourists – mostly from China and Taiwan – had cancelled planned group trips to South Korea.
“A mass cancellation of this scale is very unusual … and many travellers cited the MERS outbreak as the main reason,” a KTO spokesman said.
President Park Geun-hye’s administration, and health officials in general, have been criticised for responding too slowly to the initial outbreak.
In an emergency meeting with health officials yesterday, Park called for “utmost efforts” to curb the spread of the virus and ease public fear.
Tracing the path of patient zero
The 68-year-old “patient zero” visited four health facilities seeking treatment and inadvertently triggered the biggest outbreak of Mers.
The South Korean “index patient” was running a farm equipment company in Bahrain, according to a South Korean official, and had visited the region before returning on May 4.
More than half of South Korea’s infections have been traced to a hospital in Pyeongtaek city, 65 kilometres southwest of Seoul, where the man shared a room with another patient.
“The first patient was close to another person in the room and it appears that more infections took place as he went out of the room for checks, sneezing and coughing in the hall,” said Kim Woo-joo, an infectious disease specialist advising the government.
Others became infected at three of the four health facilities the man visited, authorities said.
Officials have not identified the hospitals where Mers patients are being treated, but the Pyeongtaek facility has been shut and the staff have been quarantined.
A Chinese tourist visiting the Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul puts a mask on her child’s face as a precaution. Around 7,000 tourists – mostly from China and Taiwan – had cancelled planned group trips to South Korea. Photo: Reuters
A nurse there said there was a lack of knowledge about the virus when the man was in hospital. Health officials have said hospital staff had not been aware of the man’s Middle East trip.
“There’s little understanding. His visit to us was just unavoidable exposure to other people in the hospital,” the nurse, who is in quarantine at home, said by telephone. She declined to be identified.
When the man was admitted at another hospital, where he was finally diagnosed, he at first only told staff he had visited Bahrain, which is not considered a Mers danger zone, health officials said.
In fact, the man had also been to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the countries with the most Mers cases and most of its approximately 440 fatalities.
“We reported him to the disease control centre but because he went to Bahrain, which was all we knew at that time, his case dragged on,” said an official at the hospital where he was diagnosed on May 20, who also declined to be identified. “Too much time was spent finding him positive.”
The person the index patient shared a room with at the Pyeongtaek hospital contracted Mers, as did that person’s son, who had visited.
The son broke voluntary quarantine and travelled to Hong Kong and mainland China, where he was diagnosed with Mers. He is in hospital in China.
As of yesterday, the index patient was on a respirator in a government-designated hospital. His 63-year-old wife also contracted the virus, but authorities said her condition had improved.
Authorities believe that other than the index patient, most of the MERS infections in South Korea came from the health facilities the index patient visited.
Mers has now infected 1,161 people globally, with 436 deaths. More than 20 countries have been affected, with most cases in Saudi Arabia.
The virus, which has no known cure or vaccine, is considered a deadlier but less infectious cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), which killed hundreds of people when it appeared in Asia in 2003.
The World Health Organisation said it expected more infections in South Korea, but stressed that there was “no evidence of sustained transmission in the community”.
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 June, 2015, 11:53am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 June, 2015, 12:12pm