21 October 2016
A wedding couple and their guests wear protective masks in Seoul. Photo: AFP/Sewing for the Soil
A wedding couple and their guests wear protective masks in Seoul. Photo: AFP/Sewing for the Soil

S Korea MERS outbreak highlights lessons from SARS

South Korea’s initial stumble in dealing with Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) highlights important lessons from previous viral outbreaks in Asia.

Experts say a quick, comprehensive quarantine of those affected and proper information disclosure to the public are needed, The Wall Street Journal reported.

South Korean authorities reported Tuesday the seventh death of a person with MERS and eight new infections.

The number of confirmed MERS cases was 95, the largest outside Saudi Arabia, where the virus was first discovered in 2012.

Experts say missteps after the outbreak was confirmed inflated the scale of the problem.

One key flaw was lax quarantine of those infected and people who had contact with them.

Soon after the first case of MERS was confirmed on May 20, a man under voluntary quarantine flew to Hong Kong and took a bus to Guangdong province.

He was later hospitalized and confirmed by Chinese health authorities as having MERS.

A second person under quarantine in South Korea was tracked by her mobile phone to a golf course far away from her home in Seoul.

Authorities have noted that all infections in South Korea have come at hospitals.

But they have since tightened quarantines, including sealing off a village of about 100 people in the south of the country after a resident was diagnosed with MERS.

“The government underestimated the potential spread of MERS in the initial phases,” said Sohn Myong-sei, former president of the Graduate School of Public Health at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Jeong Seok-hoon, a clinical microbiologist at Gangnam Severance Hospital in Seoul, contrasts the limited effectiveness of South Korea’s MERS quarantine to its success in preventing the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003.

In that outbreak, originating in China, South Korea benefited from time to prepare itself to control the virus after outbreaks were reported overseas.

Four people were quarantined in hospitals in South Korea after contracting SARS while abroad. There was no further spread of the virus in the country.

It took nine days before the first MERS patient was diagnosed with the virus in South Korea, allowing transmission to others and complicating the effort to ensure an effective quarantine.

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