South Korea is scrambling to deal with a MERS outbreak that has seen hundreds of schools shut down and over a thousand people under mandatory quarantine. The virus spread rapidly across the region after a 68-year-old Korean national, who recently traveled to four countries in the Middle East, became the first confirmed case on May 20. This is the largest reported outbreak outside of Saudi Arabia, with at least 30 people in South Korea having contracted the virus and two reported deaths.
MERS—Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus—is a poorly understood and relatively new disease, according to The World Health Organization (WHO). It was first detected in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and the vast majority of cases have been linked to countries in and near the Arabian Peninsula. There is some evidence that suggests the virus can be transmitted from dromedary camels to humans, but there are no vaccines or treatments available. The WHO warns that the outbreak in South Korea is likely to spread even further.
Those infected suffer from severe acute respiratory illness, with symptoms ranging from shortness of breath, fever and gastrointestinal issues. MERS has a mortality rate of 37 percent, with 480 reported deaths since 2012. Peter Ben Embarek, the MERS spokesperson at the WHO, told Science magazine that the simplest explanation for the outbreak is a “superspreading event" caused by a lapse in control measures at the hospital.
The New York Times reports that the number of people quarantined and monitored for symptoms rose from 790 to 1,364 in a day. The authorities are waiting to hear back on test results from 99 people suspected of being infected.
"There are a lot people worried about the situation," South Korean President Park Geun-hye told an emergency meeting of ministers and top officials, reports Reuters UK. "Everything must be done to stop any further spread."