MERS, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, has stoked fast-rising anxiety in South Korea about a disease for which there is no known cure.
Nearly 1,200 Korean schools have shut down for fear of the mysterious virus spreading among vulnerable children as the number of people with the infection rose above 40, four of whom have died. Upwards of 1,500 exposed to carriers of the virus were quarantined.
Most of the cases were confined to one hospital, but passengers on buses and trains, on busy streets, in crowded shopping malls, in parks and playgrounds everywhere wore face masks. The virus, which originated in Saudi Arabia, is closely related to SARS, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome that claimed hundreds of victims a dozen years ago.
While less infectious than SARS, MERS is viewed as more likely to prove fatal – approximately 40% of more than 1,200 people diagnosed worldwide in 20 countries, mostly in the middle east, have died from the disease since it was diagnosed in people in Saudi Arabia three years ago.The disease had mutated from Saudi Arabian camels, some of which were discovered in the 1990s to be carrying the virus.
Amid mounting alarm, Koreans tend to blame the government for not acting fast enough to contain the virus. A Gallup Korea poll showed the popularity rating of President Park Geun-Hye had fallen by six points to 34% — a drop attributed largely to complaints about the government’s slow response.
By now more people have come down with MERS in South Korea than in any country outside the middle east. Dr. John Linton at Severance Hospital in Seoul said one reason the rate of incidence was higher in Korea than elsewhere is the custom of relatives staying in the same room with those who are hospitalized.
Although the number of Koreans suffering from MERS is relatively small, the frustration of uncertainty pervades the atmosphere.
“MERS situation is getting worse and worse,” said a foreigner living in Seoul. “As the number of cases has grown, alarm has increased. What is causing panicked rumors is the government’s decision not to reveal the names and locations of the hospitals where cases have been discovered.”
The first Korean diagnosed with MERS, a 68-year-old man returning from the middle east, had been working for a company selling agricultural products in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The man has survived three weeks since complaining of the telltale cough and high temperature but came into contact with others who later caught the disease, including the latest victim, a 76-year-old man.
The questions Koreans are asking is why the government was not prepared to deal with MERS and what to do now to nip it before it assumes epidemic proportions.
Among those suspected of having come down with MERS is a doctor who had been treating MERS patients. Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said the doctor had been in contact with more than 1,000 people in a hospital in the well-to-do southern are of the capital before he was placed in isolation in a hospital for those who may have the virus.
Also among those feared to have caught the disease was a Korean Air Force chief master sergeant, placed under quarantine at Osan Air Base south of Seoul. The fear was the disease might spread among both Korean and U.S. forces at the base, regional headquarters of the U.S. Seventh Air Force.
An official at the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Yonhap, the Korean news agency, that “a number of soldiers suspected to have contracted the disease” had been placed in isolation “to prevent its spread by minimizing other contacts with those we suspect are infected.”
Fear of the unknown adds to the anxiety. “There is no treatment for MERS,” said Hakim Djaballah, CEO of Institut Pasteur Korea, in an interview with the Korea Times. “Since it is relatively a new virus, little drug discovery research has been done on it.”
Mr. Djaballah called on the Korean health ministry to conduct tests to determine if the disease was the same as that diagnosed in Saudi Arabia or if it had mutated into a somewhat different form.
“I suspect that the virus has adapted here,” Mr. Djaballah was quoted as saying. “Spread is very unusual and the level of contagion is very high.” It was “important,” he said, “to have the information on patient zero” — the first Korean to contract the disease — to see if it was “propagating randomly or through specific people related to patient zero and hospital caregivers.”
The World Health Organization said there was “no evidence of sustained transmission” but was sending a team of epidemiologists to Korea to check on possible mutation of the original MERS virus and to recommend what to do about it.
Dr. Leo Poon at the University of Hong Kong told CNN transmission of the disease among humans was unlikely “We found little transmission in humans,” he said. “We know there is human-to-human transmission, but it’s not sustainable.”