South Koreans Mask Up In The Face Of MERS Scare

Jun 2, 2015
Originally published on June 4, 2015 4:51 pm

South Korea is contending with the biggest Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, outbreak outside the Middle East.

Nearly 700 are in isolation to contain the outbreak. As of Tuesday, health officials have confirmed 25 cases of MERS in South Korea; among them, two people have died. Fears about the disease, which has no vaccine or cure, are fueling skyrocketing sales for at least one industry: surgical masks.

On a street in Seoul known by locals as "pharmacy street," you'll find endless stalls with colorful ways to cover your mouth. Along with the standard white surgical face mask, usually used for protection from pollution, there's a tie-dyed face mask. And one with a little cat stitched on it. But these days, masking up is about preventing the spread of disease, not fashion.

"In the past week, between May 23 and 31, mask sales have increased by 709 percent and hand sanitizers by 147 percent," says Lee Sang-min. He's a spokesman for Auction, Korea's oldest online marketplace. (Auction is a subsidiary of eBay.)

MERS is potentially fatal, with mortality rates hovering around 40 percent. So it makes sense that face masks are flying off shelves, especially in a region scarred by memories of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, epidemic of 2003. But does donning a mask actually do anything?

"The evidence is really controversial. Some studies have shown there may be some protection by wearing face masks and others have shown there really isn't at all," says Carol McLay, an infectious disease consultant at the University of Kentucky.

"There is some limited evidence out there that surgical masks can [prevent] the transmission of various diseases such as influenza. Now MERS is a very different beast, because it can be transmitted by very, very small particles. However, I always go on the policy of better safe than sorry," McLay says.

Seems like South Koreans are playing by that policy, too. Online retailers say they only expect face mask sales to stay sky high until the MERS spread can be contained.

HaeRyun Kang contributed to this story.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Hundreds of South Koreans are in mandatory isolation to contain an outbreak of MERS - Middle East respiratory syndrome. It's the biggest MERS outbreak outside the Middle East. As NPR's Elise Hu reports, public fears are fueling skyrocketing sales for at least one industry.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Seoul seems to have a themed street for everything. On pharmacy street, you'll find endless stalls of colorful ways to cover your mouth - facemasks with cat characters.

Oh, that's cute.

Or...

Pink and purple floral.

Or the standard white surgical mask, all often used to guard against the city's air pollution. But these days, masking up is about preventing the spread of disease.

LEE SANG-MIN: (Speaking Korean).

HU: Lee Sang-min is a spokesman for Auction, Korea's oldest online marketplace and a subsidiary of eBay. He says in the last week alone, sales of surgical masks soared 700 percent.

SANG-MIN: (Through interpreter) A 700 percent increase can be seen as a very big increase. In South Korea, when issues like this break out, you see the first reaction in online malls.

HU: That issue is the fast spread of the MERS virus, a potentially fatal respiratory illness. Since the first Korean patient brought it from Saudi Arabia two weeks ago, health officials have confirmed 24 more cases and two deaths, so now baby sanitation products, hand sanitizers and, of course, the facemasks are flying off shelves. But does donning a mask actually do anything?

CAROL MCLAY: The evidence is really fairly controversial about it. Some studies have shown there may be some protection by wearing face masks, and others have shown there really isn't at all.

HU: Carol McLay is an infectious disease consultant at the University of Kentucky.

MCLAY: There is some limited evidence out there that surgical masks can be effective at preventing the transmission of various diseases such as influenza. Now, MERS, you know, is really another beast because it can be transmitted by very, very small particles. However, you know, I always go on the policy of better safe than sorry.

HU: Seems like South Koreans are playing by that policy too. Online retailers say they expect facemasks to stay in high demand until the MERS spread can be contained. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.