The World Health Organization said on Tuesday that the outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in South Korea was the largest seen outside the Middle East, but that it should not be a cause of concern.
South Korea’s health ministry said there were eight new MERS cases reported, bringing the total of patients to 95. South Korea’s new cases bring the total of MERS cases globally to 1,244, based on the WHO data, with at least 446 related deaths.
Alison Clements-Hunt, a spokesperson from the WHO Director-General’s office in Geneva, said South Korea has acted quickly to curb the outbreak and keep the casualty count to a minimum when it was first discovered in the country.
“There are a number of cases in [South] Korea at the moment, it is the largest outbreak we’ve seen outside of the Middle East, but the pattern is not dissimilar to what we could expect to see based what knowledge we have of the virus,” she said. “Again, I have to stress that it is a newly identified virus in terms of virus longevity. And in [South] Korea, the first case may not have identified straight away and therefore, some transition took place before the Korean authorities knew what they were dealing with.”
Speaking in Manila, Clements-Hunt said the South Korean government has followed the guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO) in terms of isolation and prevention of the virus, despite new cases being reported mostly inside health care facilities.
“Today, we begin to see a decrease in the number of infections and we would expect to still see more cases, there are still a lot of people in isolation who we would expect some of those cases may develop MERS but hopefully this will start to tail off as the outbreak infection control measures and contact tracing kicks in,” she said.
A team of experts from the WHO is in South Korea to probe the virus and take a look at the health measures being done in the country.
Clements-Hunt, who is part of that WHO Western Pacific team but stayed behind in Manila to coordinate, said there was yet no need to declare any travel warnings as the situation seemed to be improving.
“The World Health Organization does not recommend any travel bans at this stage and no countries have actually put in place travel bans at this point. Some countries have issued travel advisories, which, you know, that is a national decision, and also some countries are putting in some mild screening procedures at point of arrival, just to ask travelers if they had visited Korea and recently, if they think they have been in contact with a case and that way they can issue advice about what people should do,” she said.
Hong Kong said on Tuesday it would issue a red alert against non-essential travel to South Korea.
Hong Kong’s number two official, Carrie Lam, told reporters just ahead of a meeting of the city’s Executive Council that the red alert would be issued.
A red alert is defined as a “significant threat” according to the Hong Kong government, and means people should “adjust travel plans” and “avoid non-essential travel.”
Macau required masks for people entering local healthcare facilities as a precaution against MERS, and advised residents to avoid travel to South Korea unless absolutely necessary.
South Korea has the second highest number of infections after Saudi Arabia, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
All 95 cases of infection took place in health care facilities, according to the ministry.
Some 2,892 people who may have had contact with MERS patients have been put under quarantine, some in hospitals but most at home. Authorities have said they are using mobile phones to track people who violate quarantine.