SEOUL, South Korea— Experts from the World Health Organization and South Korea on Saturday downplayed concerns about the MERS virus spreading further within the country, which recorded its 14th death and a dozen new infections, but said it was premature to declare the outbreak over.
After a weeklong review of the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, the panel of experts told a news conference that there was no evidence to suggest the virus is spreading in the community. The outbreak in South Korea has so far been occurring only in hospitals, among patients, family members who visited them and medical staff treating them.
The virus has spread at a pattern similar to previous outbreaks in the Middle East, and the sequencing studies of samples from South Korea show no signs that the virus has increased its ability to transmit between humans, said WHO Assistant Director Keiji Fukuda.
While the infections seem to be stagnating, the South Korean government must continue to maintain strong control measures, such as thoroughly tracing patients’ contacts and preventing suspected patients from traveling, because it’s still early to declare the situation over, he said.
The continued discovery of new cases has created an impression that the outbreak is getting bigger, but Fukuda noted that many of the cases being reported were of people who were infected in the past. New infections appear to be declining, which suggests that the government’s control measures are having an impact, he said.
“Now, because the outbreak has been large and is complex, more cases should be anticipated,” he said.
There has been widespread fear here of the poorly understood disease, which has no vaccine and had a mortality rate as high as 40 percent in previous outbreaks. There also had been growing criticism over failures by health workers and the government to initially recognize and quickly contain the disease.
Fukuda said that overcrowded emergency rooms and hospital wards might have contributed to a wider-than-expected transmission of the virus, which usually spreads poorly between people. South Korea’s habits of “doctor shopping” — visiting multiple facilities to treat the same infection — and the custom of having many friends and family members visiting hospitalized patients might have also facilitated the spread, he said.
A 67-year-old woman who had been combating thyroid problems and high blood pressure before she was confirmed as having MERS died early Saturday, becoming South Korea’s 14th fatality from the virus, the Health Ministry said.
Nearly 140 people in the country have been diagnosed with MERS since last month — including 12 new cases reported Saturday — in the largest outbreak outside Saudi Arabia. Among those infected, 16 are in serious condition, Jeong Eun-kyeong, a senior official from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters.
About 2,900 schools and kindergartens remained closed Friday, and more than 4,000 people were isolated as of Saturday after possible contact with those infected, the Health Ministry said.
Two hospitals, including one in Seoul, also were temporarily closed after MERS patients were found to have had contact with hundreds of people at the two facilities before they were diagnosed.
Experts think MERS can spread in respiratory droplets, such as by coughing. But transmissions have mainly occurred through close contact, such as living with or caring for an infected person.
MERS belongs to the family of coronaviruses that includes the common cold and SARS, and can cause fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure. Most of the deaths in South Korea have been of people suffering from pre-existing medical conditions, such as respiratory problems or cancer.