The common practice of going from hospital to hospital seeking care has helped spread MERS in South Korea, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.
It says the Middle East Respiratory Virus has now infected 150 people in South Korea, killing 15 of them. Almost all the cases are linked to hospitals, and they all trace back to a single man who carried the virus from the Middle East last month.
Half of the cases — 75 of them — can be traced to Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, WHO says.
“All cases detected to date appear to be linked back to the index case, who was diagnosed and isolated on 20 May. To date, spread has largely occurred in the confined setting of health care facilities, with no known spillover into the general population,” WHO said in a statement.
And it explains how MERS spread so far and wide so very quickly.
“The accessibility and affordability of health care in Korea encourage ‘doctor shopping’; patients frequently consult specialists in several facilities before deciding on a first-choice facility,” WHO said in its statement.
“The accessibility and affordability of health care in Korea encourage ‘doctor shopping’"
“Moreover, it is customary in Korea for many family members and friends to visit loved ones when they are in the emergency room or admitted to hospital. It is also customary for family members to provide almost constant bedside care often staying in the hospital room overnight, increasing the risk of close exposures in the health care setting.”
That’s the same thing that often happens in the Middle Eastern countries where MERS was first seen and where it’s most common.
“All cases detected to date appear to be linked back to the index case, who was diagnosed and isolated on 20 May,” WHO said.
“To date, spread has largely occurred in the confined setting of health care facilities, with no known spillover into the general population. Korean health officials are actively monitoring a large number of close and casual contacts and it is possible, and even likely, that more cases will be reported before this outbreak is over.”
It does appear that the outbreak is slowing down, WHO said.
“This suggests that the containment measures in place are having an effect in reducing new infections. As these containment measures have been recently intensified, it is too early to measure their full impact on the transmission.”
WHO has advised South Korea to reopen schools, but to double down on hospital procedures, such as making everyone who comes near a potential MERS patient put on masks, gowns and other protective equipment and carefully disinfecting equipment and surfaces.
“MERS is difficult to diagnose, particularly in the early part of an outbreak when awareness is relatively low."
But WHO says it’s not entirely carelessness that led to the outbreak.
“MERS is difficult to diagnose, particularly in the early part of an outbreak when awareness is relatively low,” WHO said.
“The initial, or ‘index’ case, did not report his recent travel history to the Middle East when he first sought treatment. MERS was not suspected, and the initial case exposed others for more than a week before he was isolated. Additionally early symptoms of MERS resemble other influenza-like illnesses making it difficult to recognize or suspect MERS.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reminded U.S. doctors and medical facilities to be on the lookout for MERS. Two people brought MERS to the U.S. but neither infected anyone else and both recovered.