Seoul, (South Korea) – Fears of MERS in South Korea are growing by the day, with more than 2,300 people quarantined as the country grapples with the outbreak.
At least 1,381 schools will be closed for several days amid concerns of the spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome. They include 1,255 schools in Gyeonggi province, the area outside Seoul where the outbreak started and where a South Korean air force member stationed at a U.S. air base has been isolated with the illness.
The other 126 schools are in the Gangnam region, near the Samsung Seoul hospital — the most affected hospital in the city.
The virus has claimed the lives of five people, with another 64 people suffering from the illness.
Four people in South Korea have died and 41 have been infected by Mers. South Korea said it was stepping up its response on Friday after fourth victim died and the number of people infected with the disease rose to 41.
Virus becomes increasing public concern
South Korean President Park Geun-hye acknowledged problems in the country’s early response earlier this week.
“Initial reaction for new infectious diseases like MERS is very important, but there were some insufficiency in the initial response, including the judgment on its contagiousness,” she said.
On Friday, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon announced:
“From now on, Seoul city is embarking on a war against Mers. We will take swift and stern measures to protect the lives and safety of our citizens”.
MERS, which stands for short for Middle East respiratory syndrome, was first
What is MERS Virus?
reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012, international cases have largely been confined to travelers bringing the virus back to other countries and infecting one or two others. There have been deaths in countries like Oman, Algeria, and Malaysia — but none of them had additional infections to the extent of South Korea. The global death toll of virus stands at 436.
MERS is in the same family of viruses as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) as well as the common cold. However, MERS does not spread easily between humans — as far as scientists know at this point.
“So far, the virus has been circulating in humans for three years,” said Dr. Leo Poon, a virology expert at the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong, who worked on the SARS outbreak more than a decade ago. “We found little transmission in human. We know there is human-to-human transmission, but it’s not sustainable.”
The MERS virus, which kills more than 30 percent of its victims, has been called “a threat to the entire world” by the director of the World Health Organization. Until May, it was mostly hanging around Saudi Arabia. Then the virus jumped to South Korea, which is now battling the largest-ever outbreak of MERS outside of the Middle East.
“This is quite unusual. I think this is the only country, apart from those in the Middle East, that has such a number of cases,” said Poon. “It’s not entirely surprising. In the Middle East, people in Saudi Arabia had hospital outbreaks where a few people got infected. It’s a similar situation at the moment.”