MERS Outbreak in the Republic of Korea

Lablogatory spoke to Kyung Jin Cho, PhD, from the Department of Health and Environmental Science at Korea University about the current outbreak of MERS in the Republic of Korea. This is what he had to say.

Lablogatory: What can you tell us about MERS in the Republic of Korea?

Dr. Cho: MERS is a viral respiratory infection caused by Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV). The MERS-CoV belongs to the coronavirus family (beta coronavirus). Many MERS patients developed severe acute respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough, expectoration, and shortness of breath. The cause of MERS is not yet fully understood. Some infected people had mild symptoms or recovered. Incubation period is known as 2-14 days. The incubation periods are still under dispute since a few cases in Korea reported incubation periods longer than 14 days. Fortunately, the MERS outbreak appears to be subsiding with one or two new cases are reported daily. Many people under the house quarantine at the peak of MERS outbreak are now released.

The Korean MERS portal reported that there are 27 deaths from 175 cases as of June 23, since the first MERS patient was confirmed on May 20, 2015 (Fatality rate: 15.4%). Most of the people who died had an underlying disease such as chronic lung and kidney disease, cancer, and diabetes mellitus. Of the 27 deaths, 74.1% were male and all were over the age of 40. Of the 175 confirmed cases, male 107 (61.1%), female 68 (38.9%); the Inpatient/outpatients 80 (45.7%), family members/visitors visiting sick persons 62 (35.4%), staff and other hospital employees 33 (18.9%). Most of the MERS cases were infected within the medical facilities. The cumulative number of released individuals from quarantine is 10,718. The current number of isolated is 2,805 (home 2,091 and institution 714).

Lablogatory: How fast is it traveling within Republic of Korea?

Dr. Cho: The major second place of MERS spread was a mammoth hospital which is a top-class institution in Seoul. Within a large hospital, the Hospital S, nearly half of the cases (82 of 166 cases, As of Jun 20, 2015) were exposed to the MERS during June 5th through June 10th. The hospital S admitted the 14th case of MERS and became the epicenter of the second generation of MERS cases. The health authority failed to carry out timely control measures against MERS. The authority and the hospital S were harshly blamed for the late response in the beginning of MERS outbreak.

During the MERS outbreak, a few doubtful MERS patients roamed about a few institutions. Some local hospitals had to refer their untreated cases to the tertiary hospitals located in big cities, like Seoul or Busan, which have excellent specialists and more resources. Unfortunately, some of the hospitals could not cope with the unexpected MERS outbreak. The triage systems in some medical institutions and the house quarantines were not operated successfully at the beginning, which contributed to the spread.

Lablogatory: Beyond the basic protocols, what other measures are being put in place, or SHOULD be put in place to stop the spread of this virus?

Dr. Cho: The Government’s rapid-response team (RST) should have activated much earlier. Government should have timely announced the list of hospitals in which MERS cases appeared and should have issued the compulsory order for the closure or partial closure of the few target hospitals much earlier. We realized that there are too few officials who are working for the government as experts in the epidemiology.

Also, the number of efficient Airborne Infection Isolation Room (AIIR) is largely insufficient. The possibility of MERS spread within the patients’ rooms and emergency room might be much higher than we would have expected.

Even though the government and some hospitals didn’t make timely responses, they disclosed the list of 84 hospitals (As of June 20th, 2015) that had MERS cases onset or MERS cases passed by. They also announced the list of 251 safe hospitals so that general citizens and respiratory patients can take the treatment under the safe conditions.

Seoul City authority asked citizens of Seoul to report MERS outbreak to Dasan Call Center (120) or official website of the Seoul metropolitan city. Citizens of other areas can report the outbreak to Korea government’s official website.

Through text messages or phone calls, the Hospital S tried to reach all the people who visited the Hospital S during the periods of high MERS exposure. Most of citizens are now well complying with the government measures.

Since some MERS patients in Korea exhibited symptoms beyond the two-week latency period, local health authorities will maintain a tent at the entrance of the town for more five days with staff to monitor if any villagers show symptoms.

The health authority is monitoring three hospitals intensively ( Hospital G in Seoul, Hospital A in Chungcheong province and Hospital G in Busan) that could possibly become new epicenters for the spread of MERS.

Lablogatory: How should institutions protect laboratory workers? What steps can clinical laboratory scientists take to protect themselves?

Dr. Cho: Information can be found here:“The Guidelines on Diagnostic Testing for MERS.” These guidelines include information about specimen collection, transport, and testing.

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