Classes Canceled, 1,300 Quarantined In S. Korea's Scramble To Stop MERS

Jun 3, 2015
Originally published on June 3, 2015 7:59 am

More than 1,300 people in South Korea are under mandatory quarantine as health officials scramble to contain the largest outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, outside the Arabian Peninsula. So far, at least 30 people in South Korea have contracted the virus, which has no known vaccine or cure. Two of them have died since the outbreak began May 20.

Scientists are trying to figure out why a single imported case led to so many secondary infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says MERS is only spread through close contact.

The current outbreak in Asia all started when a 68-year-old man returned from a business trip to the Middle East in mid-May. Once he came down with symptoms of MERS, health officials say he went to four different hospitals for treatment before being correctly diagnosed with the relatively new virus.

In that time, when he was going from clinic to clinic — Science Magazine reports that the single patient may have infected at least 22 others.

School Disruptions, SARS Memories

On the streets of Seoul, you'll find many more people than usual donning surgical face masks as a preventative measure. It was just about a decade ago that severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, a cousin of MERS, originated in East Asia and killed about 750 people globally.

The MERS scare has already been disruptive to regular Koreans. The South Korean education minister says more than 200 schools have closed in an effort to prevent infection spreading to students, and the quarantine numbers have grown from 700 to 1,300 since Tuesday. But how well quarantine orders are working is in question, as already the virus has spread from MERS patients besides the first one, who traveled to the Middle East.

And at least one patient ignored quarantine orders and traveled to China, putting Chinese officials on edge. That man, according to the Health Ministry, got sick after visiting a hospitalized relative near Seoul. But he ignored quarantine orders and flew to Hong Kong, and then traveled by bus to another city in China, in the Guandong Province. He tested positive for MERS after authorities tracked him down in China. As a result, more than 60 Chinese have been quarantined on the mainland and in Hong Kong.

Studying 'Remarkable' Virality

This is a pretty new virus, first detected in 2012. So there are questions about the way it behaves. Like what happened in those crucial first days when the patient was seeking treatment? Is this strain slightly different than the one in the Middle East? How does it affect Koreans versus other populations?

The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy talked with epidemiologists who are fascinated by this spread:

"Marion Koopmans, DVM, PhD, a virologist at Erasmus Medical Center and the National Institute for Public Health and Environment in the Netherlands, said the outbreak is remarkable and serves as a clear reminder of what viruses can do.

So far, she said, it's difficult to tell if the events in South Korea amount to more than what has been seen in Saudi Arabian hospital clusters. She added that it will be useful to compare the situation to what happens in China, where an imported case-patient from South Korea is hospitalized in Guangdong province."

The World Health Organization says it's in close contact with South Korean officials and that the quality of the reporting on this spread is giving it nearly real time insight. That's going to give scientists more data to explain the fast expansion of this cluster. But, the WHO is warning that because of the sheer number of hospitals and clinics that the first patient sought treatment at, more cases are expected.

HaeRyun Kang contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We have news this morning of battles in medicine. In a moment, we'll hear how the legal system is handling arguments over vaccinations and whether those vaccines have left people who received them worse off.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A different health struggle is playing out in South Korea. Authorities there are scrambling to stop an outbreak of a severe illness, Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS. It's claimed two lives in that country and forced more than 1,300 other people to be quarantined. The fear is heightened because MERS has no known cure or vaccine. NPR's Elise Hu is monitoring the situation at her base in Seoul. Good morning.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Elise, this all started a couple of weeks ago with a single case. Remind us of that.

HU: That's right. The outbreak all started when a 68-year-old man returned from a business trip to the Middle East. That was in mid-May. Once he came down with symptoms of MERS, which are fever, cough, difficulty breathing, health officials say he went to four different hospitals in South Korea for treatment before getting correctly diagnosed with MERS. In that time when he was going from clinic to clinic, that single patient may have infected more than 20 others, since the majority of cases here are from the same hospital where that first patient was admitted.

MONTAGNE: And we know at least one patient ignored quarantine orders, traveled to China, and how is that patient doing?

HU: That's right - a man in his 40s. He got sick after visiting a hospitalized relative near Seoul. He ignored those orders. Then, he flew to Hong Kong, got on a bus and rode to the Guangdong province. He then tested positive for MERS in China. That marks the first MERS case in China. He's currently in isolation there, and more than 60 Chinese have been quarantined on the mainland and in Hong Kong as a result of the scare there.

MONTAGNE: One has to wonder how serious this is because, of course, we do hear about these serious diseases making their way out of where they started. Any sense there, in South Korea, that the spread of MERS is slowing down, that it's getting effectively contained?

HU: Well, as far as we know now, as far as scientists know now, MERS has a 40 percent death rate. And memories of SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, are still pretty fresh, even though that was more than 10 years ago. And this is a pretty new virus. It was first detected in 2012, so there's a lot of questions about the way it behaves like, what exactly happened in those first days when that first patient was seeking treatment? Is this strain slightly different than the one in the Middle East? The World Health Organization says it's been in close contact with South Korean officials and that the quality of the reporting on the spread of this particular outbreak has been really rapid, so they're getting a lot of real-time insight. And scientists are going to try to explain this fast expansion, in particular in South Korea.

MONTAGNE: So South Koreans - how are they reacting to this? It must be very frightening for them.

HU: Well, if you're out and about on the streets of Seoul today, you'll see a lot more people donning those surgical face masks than they were even yesterday. That's as a preventative measure. And this has certainly been disruptive already to regular Koreans. The education minister says more than 200 schools have already been closed now in an effort to prevent infection from spreading to students. And, as you mentioned, more than 1,300 Koreans are under quarantine, so it is certainly affecting the broader population in a way that goes beyond the 30 confirmed cases.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Elise Hu speaking to us from Seoul, South Korea. Thanks very much.

HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.