South Korea’s Response To MERS Outbreak 2015: Is Coronavirus As Scary As It’s Made Out To Be?

Elizabeth Whitman
International Business Times
June 09, 2015

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It’s the new face of South Korea: the thin surgical mask that stretches over the mouth and nose and loops behind the ears, to be worn at all times. Its sales have soared in recent weeks, as scores of people, frompop stars to tourists, don the safety wear against a harmful virus.

Seven people so far have died in the recent outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) virus in South Korea. Official efforts to contain the virus have included quarantining 2,500 people and shuttering 2,200 schools, while the populace has steered clear of malls and movie theaters. After all, with 95 people so far sickened by a virus that kills roughly 36 percent of the people it strikes, it can’t hurt to exercise an abundance of caution — right? Not so fast, say some experts, who question whether the response to the outbreak might be disproportionate or even have adverse consequences.

Greg Gray, an epidemiologist at Duke University in North Carolina, compares the reaction to MERS to the widespread panic in the U.S. sparked by a bout of anthrax mailings in 2001. “The public concern about this was so escalated that the fears from the event were more dangerous than the threat of the event itself,” he said, referring to extraneous demands on doctors, for instance, or calls to emergency services.

MERS is a virus that can cause fever, cough and shortness of breath. Severe infections can lead to pneumonia and organ failure, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The first case was reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and the virus is thought to have originated from animals, specifically camels. Droplets from coughs or sneezes probably transmit the virus from person to person, the WHO suspects.

South Korea’s outbreak of MERS, which by now has spread to 24 hospitals and healthcare facilities, began May 20 with a 68-year-old man returned from a four-country tour in the Middle East. As of Tuesday, seven people have died from the virus, most recently a 68-year-old woman.

Some have suggested that the reason South Korea has taken such stringent steps to quell this outbreak is because of Asia’s experience with severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003, in which approximately 8,000 people were infected and 750 people died. But although MERS and SARS are both members of the coronavirus family, MERS appears — for now — to be far less contagious. “This is certainly not as global a threat right now as SARS was,” Andrew Pekosz, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University, said.

South Korean officials may also want to compensate for what has been criticized as a lax response during the early stages of the outbreak, when the first patient carrying the virus visited four hospitals before he was diagnosed. “We apologize for the inappropriate initial responses,” Korean Minister of Health Moon Hyung-pyo said June 2. “We were too relaxed.”

Authorities subsequently vowed to “launch an active, all-out response with the goal of ending the MERS crisis within this week,” in the words of Korean Finance Minister and acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-Hwan, Agence-France Presse reported Tuesday.

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