I wish I had the patience to tediously dissect all the events of the past two weeks here in Korea, but there isn’t enough time or energy for me to recount it all. And though it might excite me, it would probably bore all of you. On the other hand, you’ve certainly heard news reports about it and might be curious what’s going on.
On May 20, the Korean Ministry of Health (KMOH) confirmed its first case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in country. In the beginning, information was quickly disseminated and the public was reassured that the situation would be controlled. MERS is a (corona)virus that’s fairly new to humans, as it’s only been around since 2012. It is relatively deadly for those who get it (~40%), but it seems to afflict the elderly and chronically ill in particular. A bit scary, but rare.
Despite the collectively raised eyebrow from the public here in Korea, life went on as usual, even after a couple of subsequent cases were confirmed. It was verified that Patient 0 sought care at four different medical facilities before diagnosis and was in close contact with up to 60 other individuals, including hospital roommates and visitors. This was Seoul’s chance to prove to the world its modern medical infrastructure is capable of handling a crisis.
Several days later, we are counting 4 deaths, 41 cases, and facing over 2000 people who need to be quarantined and isolated – which would theoretically last two weeks, the incubation period for MERS. Face masks are selling out of stores. One MERS contact developed symptoms and then chose to get on a plane to Hong Kong and further travel by bus to China. You can imagine our Asian neighbors aren’t too happy with the Korean government at the moment. Locals aren’t thrilled either; concern continues regarding the government’s ability to implement and maintain quarantine and isolation.
Up until now, the government has tried to appease the public by reiterating that all 41 cases have been a result of close contact within a medical facility. [KMOH has refused until today to release the names of any of said facilities.] This means that you wouldn’t just get MERS walking down the street or shaking someone’s hand. Or in a school, though hundreds of them in Korea have closed out of fear of MERS spread.
However, today, a troubling news report was released, stating that a doctor who treated a MERS patient developed symptoms last Friday but still went on to attend three large conferences over the weekend, contacting up to 1500 individuals.
For the first time, we are looking at a real chance of MERS spreading into the general population. The likelihood of this happening is far higher if, as some experts have fed the media rumor mill, the virus has mutated. Viruses are great at this; they look for ways to be more effective in taking down immune systems. One way to do this is to become a little less deadly but much more contagious – a recipe for a global pandemic, which is what public health experts fear. Still, some scientists say that is not likely with MERS since it has remained relatively contained since 2012.
Even with a WHO team of epidemiologists deployed as well as push from the international community, it has taken a lot to get the government to release more information. People are hoping that genetic sequencing of the virus is underway, but KMOH has not yet released information regarding any potential mutation.
As you might imagine, I’ve been very busy the past few days trying to assist my organization in communicating with people at site and ensuring we are prepared for potential escalation of the outbreak. We all certainly hope it won’t come to that, but active monitoring and preparation must continue for the time being.
Remember, friends, if you’re ill, please don’t travel. I’ve read reports of airlines, particularly Korean Airlines, cracking down on allowing visibly ill passengers to board flights. Airports will surely implement stricter screening and quarantine measures, and the man who traveled to Hong Kong may even be legally prosecuted because he lied on his health questionnaire. Read the fine print on those things – the warning is there!
Seek medical attention if you’ve got MERS symptoms with a recent travel history to the Middle East. Practice good hygiene: wash your hands frequently with soap and water, stay away from people who are ill, and please, please don’t pick up that bowl of unsterilized camel milk – you know, as advised by Korean Ministry of Health.
But don’t worry, the camels at the zoos have been safely isolated.