If you’re able to read this from the comfort of your bed, desk, office, or significant other’s living room and not in a hospital bed undergoing respiratory medical care in South Korea, then you probably won’t die of, or even contract, MERS. Even if you are in South Korea, as long as you wash your hands regularly, cover your coughs, and don’t hang out or touch people who are sick with MERS, like you would normally do with the flu, you’ll be completely fine.
But even though MERS is not an immediate threat to you, since it is an issue to other human beings in this world, we should all still be aware of what MERS is and what is currently happening in South Korea and China.
There is a coronavirus outbreak in South Korea that has1,400 people quarantined and 4 people dead within the last two months. Don’t panic, though, like we did when we heard of Ebola in Atlanta, Georgia and worried without actually researching about it. MERS is currently not a threat outside of South Korea, China, and Saudi Arabia, and even within these countries, its transmission can be prevented with everyday hygiene preventive practices such as regularly washing your hands with soap and water, covering your coughs, and avoiding close contact with infected people.
MERS is the acronym for Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome. MERS is a coronavirus, like the common cold, and it attacks the nose, sinuses, and upper throat. It’s like a cousin of SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, but not as contagious! However, MERS is different from SARS in that camels are the supposed primary animal reservoirs for MERS, not bats.
Now since worrying for no reason does nobody any good, here is a breakdown of what has happened so far and what you need to know about MERS:
Appearance in South Korea
The “index patient,” or the first person diagnosed in Korea, was a 68-year-old man who traveled to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in May. He sought medical care from three different clinics between May 11 and May 18, 2015 and was officially diagnosed on May 20. His 44-year-old son, who had close contact with his father, then traveled to Hong Kong by airplane and then to China by bus for a business trip. While in China, he tested positive and is currently isolated and being treated at a hospital in Huizhou, Guangdong. 88 others have been quarantined in China.
Outbreak and reaction in South Korea
There have currently been 41 positive cases of MERS reported, four of which have resulted in deaths. However, all of these deaths were of patients who were of old age and were being treated for underlying respiratory conditions at the hospital in which the 68-year-old man received medical care. Additionally, one of the doctors who treated the index patient developed symptoms, but went on to attend a symposium of 1,565 people. City officials are requesting that all 1,565 people isolate themselves in their homes as a precaution. However, they are further considering forcing these people to stay at home to prevent even more spread of the virus. Additionally, more than 1,160 schools in the Gyeonggi province of Seoul and surrounding cities, which is the area in which the index patient sought care, have been closed. A total of about 1,600 people and 17 camels in zoos have been quarantined. Airlines have “intensified” sanitation protocols, tour agencies have reported mass cancellations, and sale of surgical masks and hand sanitizers have soared within the past two months.
Criticism of Health Ministry’s response
The South Korean Health Ministry still refuses to disclose the names of the six clinics and hospitals where the 41 patients were infected, and have been criticized for such a tactless response to dealing with the MERS outbreak. Even the minister of health and welfare, Moon Hyung-pyo, has admitted on Tuesday, June 2, of the Health Ministry’s “inappropriate initial responses,” stating that health officials “were too relaxed.” Since the government did not do enough initially to reassure public safety, media and public fears have been overblown, resulting in the closing of more than a thousand schools. Even Kwon Jun-wook, a senior Health Ministry official, called the closing of schools “medically wrong,” and Kim Woo-joo, head of the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases, opposed the closing of schools, calling it “drastic.” Since then, president Park Geun-hye has ordered the establishment of a task force to try to contain the infection and to “be more transparent along the way.”
What you need to know about MERS
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MERS affects the respiratory system and spreads through close contact with an infected person. There is currently no evidence of its spreading in public settings. MERS can affect anyone, but those who are most prone to infection and complications are those who already have other medical conditions, especially respiratory. Primary symptoms involve fever, cough, shortness of breath, or diarrhea and nausea/vomiting. More severe complications are pneumonia and kidney failure. However, those who have been infected and had mild or no symptoms in the past have recovered. The incubation period is usually 5-6 days, but can range from 2-13 days. All cases have been traced to countries in and near the Arabian Peninsula, and have been speculated to come from camels. There are no vaccine or antiviral treatment for MERS, and common medical treatments include treating symptoms and reducing pain. Everyday hygiene practices for preventing the common cold or flu, such as washing your hands, covering your coughs, and avoiding infected people, can prevent the spread of MERS.
What about North Korea?
North Korea has asked to borrow three heat detection cameras from South Korea to screen South Korean factory managers who commute to an industrial park run jointly by the two countries on the border city of Kaesong. In this industrial park, about 54,000 North Koreans work in more than a hundred factories run by South Korean managers. South Korea has agreed to lend the cameras.
Now, what do you think? Still worried? Were you ever worried?
Personally, even though I have family in South Korea, I’m not too worried. I am frustrated, though, with the way the Health Ministry is dealing with the public. Haven’t they considered that the reason why schools are “drastically” closing down and people are panicking could be because they are being withheld information, and therefore don’t trust the officials to keep the outbreak under control? If MERS is supposedly less contagious than SARS, then why have there been so many infections recently? That’s not to say that contracting MERS is fatal, but that’s strange… Maybe there’s something to do with Korean living spaces or socio-cultural habits that fosters transmission of the virus?