MERS outbreak in S.Korea a 'wakeup call': WHO

17th June 2015, Comments 0 comments

The MERS outbreak raging in South Korea should be a "wakeup call", the World Health Organization said Wednesday, urging countries to be more vigilant since diseases can spread quickly in a globalised world.

The warning came as South Korea reported its 20th death from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus, and amid rising concern that authorities will not be able to contain the outbreak.

"The outbreak really should serve as a wakeup call for countries," WHO assistant director general Keiji Fukuda told reporters after the UN agency hosted an emergency committee meeting on the issue.

The South Korean outbreak, which emerged almost a month ago and is the largest ever outside of Saudi Arabia, "really took everybody by surprise," Fukuda said.

Tuesday's emergency committee meeting, which was the ninth held on MERS since the virus first surfaced in Saudi Arabia in 2012, had concluded that a lack of awareness about the virus among health workers and the public was one major contributing factor to its rapid spread.

Other factors included the fact that MERS patients had been kept in crowded emergency rooms for long periods, and the practice in South Korea of going to multiple hospitals for second and third opinions on diagnoses and treatment, so-called "doctor shopping".

The custom of many visitors or family members staying with infected patients in hospital rooms also facilitated the spread of the virus, the committee found.

- Extinguish the fire -

Fukuda said the spread of MERS, as well as the devastating west African Ebola epidemic should teach us that in a globalised world "these kinds of outbreaks can occur anywhere in the world, they can appear in any country".

"It's really critically important for countries to be aware of, to be prepared for these sorts of outbreaks occurring in their country," he said, calling on health workers to be on the lookout for viruses spreading elsewhere.

The virus appeared in South Korea on May 20 when a 68-year-old man was diagnosed after returning from a trip to Saudi Arabia.

Fukuda described surveillance footage of the crowded hospital emergency room where he stayed for several days.

"It's clear that the person was coughing a lot and was also mobile in the emergency room... You really get a sense of how one person can lead to so many infections," he said.

Unlike Ebola, MERS is not however considered "a public health emergency of international concern," the emergency committee concluded, adding that no travel or trade restrictions were warranted.

The committee had lauded South Korea for its "extensive efforts" to rein in the virus once authorities realised what was going on.

With 162 people infected in South Korea, some 6,500 are currently being monitored and more than 10,000 have been monitored since the outbreak began, Fukuda said.

New cases appear to be decreasing in South Korea, where the spread so far has been limited to hospital settings, but he warned that it is "critical to keep up high levels of surveillance."

It is vital, he said to "make sure that the fire goes out and doesn't reignite".

There is no vaccine for MERS, which has a mortality rate of 35 percent, according to the WHO.

© 2015 AFP

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