MERS Outbreak in South Korea Closes Schools


In an effort to contain the outbreak of the MERS virus in South Korea, the country has closed hundreds of schools as the virus continues to spread.  So far, 35 people have been infected and 2 have died.

Over 700 schools in the country have shut down due to an increasing public fear over what is becoming known as the largest outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outside of Saudi Arabia.

Education authorities in the country are leaving it up to individual schools to decide whether or not to close.  Wednesday saw 200 kindergartens and schools close, with more than 500 additional schools having plans to follow suit.  Most of the schools are in and around the Gyeonggi province, which surrounds Seoul, the area where the first MERS patient was discovered, writes Anna Fifield for The Portland Press Herald.

The first reported case occurred on May 20, involving a 68-year-old man who was diagnosed after visiting Saudi Arabia.  Since that time, over 1,300 people in the country who could have been directly or indirectly exposed to the virus have been placed on a variety of levels of quarantine, with some being kept in isolation at state facilities and others merely advised to stay home and avoid contact with other people.

Fear over the increasing number of people exhibiting symptoms has caused many commuters in Seoul to begin to wear face masks while riding the buses and subways.  In addition, the Korea Tourism Organisation (KTO) recently reported that around 7,000 tourists, most of which originated from China and Taiwan, had cancelled plans to visit the country.

“A mass cancellation of this scale is very unusual… and many travellers cited the MERS outbreak as the main reason,” a KTO spokesman told AFP.

President Park Geun-Hye held an emergency meeting with health officials earlier this week, asking that efforts to put a stop to the virus be amped up.  Park had previously been criticized for his slow response to the initial outbreak.

“There are a lot people worried about this situation,” Park told an emergency meeting of officials and health experts Wednesday. “We must make the utmost effort to stop MERS from spreading.”

In total, the MERS virus has infected 1,161 people around the world, killing 436.  While over 20 countries have reported cases, most of cases have occurred in Saudi Arabia.  The virus causes coughing, fever, difficulty breathing, and can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure.

Liz Szabo for USA Today reports that scientists had previously believed MERS would not have a widespread influence, as it appeared to require very close contact with some patients only infecting care givers who lived in the same home, and many others not infecting anyone.  However, the first patient in South Korea infected a total of 26 people so far.