Spread of MERS coronavirus in South Korea generating major concerns

During the past 2 weeks in South Korea, there has been a steady increase in the number of cases of the MERS coronavirus that has caused previous outbreaks and sporadic cases in Saudi Arabia and other neighbouring countries in the Middle East.

The virus was brought to South Korea by a traveller who had become infected while travelling in the Middle East. Because his infection was not recognized immediately, there was spread to some workers in hospitals that treated the original case and to other patients sharing the same wards as the initial patient. In addition, there was transmission to close personal contacts. With the diagnosis of 5 new cases, the total has reached 30 infected persons in this mini-outbreak. All these cases can be traced back to the original traveller from the Middle East.

There is considerable media attention and some degree of over reaction to this event. For example, 200 primary schools were temporarily closed, as concerned parents withdrew their children. There is considerable public alarm and some fearful urban residents are obtaining face masks and hand sanitizers.

Advice For Travellers

So far, the virus is behaving in the same way in South Korea as it has in Saudi Arabia. It is not easily transmitted from person-to-person except under unusual conditions, such as close personal contact when caring for an ill person or in hospital settings where adequate precautions were not in place.

The risk for the average traveller is extremely low. The World Health Organization (WHO) has not recommended trade or travel restrictions for South Korea.