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MERS Is No Reason to Close Schools, WHO Tells S. Korea

by Maggie Fox /  / Updated 

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The World Health Organization is urging South Korea to re-open thousands of schools closed over MERS fears, saying the virus was unlikely to spread among healthy children.

But hospitals and clinics should strengthen infection control measures and health professionals should ask about MERS in anyone showing up with respiratory symptoms, WHO says.

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has infected more than 100 people and killed nine of them in South Korea after a traveler brought it back from the Middle East.

“Strong consideration should be given to re-opening schools, as schools have not been linked to transmission of MERS."

Hospitals didn’t suspect MERS and the patient went to several hospitals, spreading the virus, before it was discovered. One patient traveled to China, sparking alarm there.

WHO sent experts to meet with South Korean authorities.

“Infection prevention and control measures should immediately be strengthened in all facilities across the country,” WHO said in a statement after the meeting.

“All patients presenting with fever or respiratory symptoms should be asked about: contact with a MERS patient; visits to a health care facility where a MERS patient has been treated; and history of travel to the Middle East in the 14 days before symptom onset,” it added.

“Any patient with positive responses should be promptly reported to public health authorities and managed as a suspected case while the diagnosis is being confirmed.”

People who have been in contact with a MERS patient should not travel until they’ve been cleared of any possibility of infection, WHO added.

“Strong consideration should be given to re-opening schools, as schools have not been linked to transmission of MERS in the Republic of Korea or elsewhere.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is preparing a health alert to send to doctors and hospitals to remind them of the risk of MERS.

MERS first appeared in 2012. Since then, it has infected more than 1,180 people and killed close to 450 of them, most in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries. It’s related to severe acute respiratory syndrome virus or SARS, which spread around the world from China in 2003 and killed nearly 800 people before it was stopped.

“Infection prevention and control measures should immediately be strengthened in all facilities across the country."

Asian nations go on especially high alert with any new respiratory pathogen, not only because of SARS but also because of H5N1 and H7N9 bird flu, both viruses that can also infect people, with an especially high death rate. H5N1 has spread in both South Korea and china, while H7N9’s been seen almost exclusively in China.

“Whenever an emerging pathogen like the MERS virus appears in a new setting, for example, in a new country, a timely and thorough investigation is critical, particularly to assess whether the virus and its transmission are changing, and to ensure implementation of the most appropriate control strategies,” WHO said.

“The evidence presented thus far suggests that the pattern of the outbreak in the Republic of Korea may be similar to MERS outbreaks that have taken place in health care facilities in the Middle East. However, the situation is rapidly evolving and investigations are ongoing.”

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