MERS Outbreak Continues to Underscore Need for Vigilance

June 26th, 2015 by Trudy Henson

Sunday, June 21st, South Korea’s health ministry reported three new cases of Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The total number of individuals infected is now at 181, and the death toll is at 31. In spite of the three new reported cases, however, there has actually been an overall drop in reported new cases.

South Korea has been under fire for failing to control MERS more quickly. At the center of that criticism is one hospital in particular, the Samsung Medical Center, where the first case of MERS appeared in May. Before this initial MERS patient was diagnosed and properly quarantined, he is estimated to have transmitted the disease to 80 people in the Samsung Medical Center emergency department. This past week, CEO and President of the Samsung Medical Center apologized on a televised news conference, offering “sincere apologies and deep regrets to anyone who has been infected with MERS and those quarantined because of our staff.”


As part of South Korea’s attempts to decrease the transmission of MERS, it has ordered hospitals to track all emergency ward visitors in order to locate anyone with potential exposure to the disease. As part of this tracking, hospitals must keep a record of “all patients and family members as well as ambulance workers and the time of their visits.”

Although this may seem a drastic measure to take, the move makes sense when one considers the nature of the MERS outbreak in South Korea: almost all transmission of the disease can be traced back to hospitals or hospital workers, and the sheer size of some hospitals make the numbers for potential exposure formidable. Samsung Medical Center, for example, is a 1,900 bed hospital that received nearly 7,500 patients a day in 2013. Contact tracing and monitoring is an equally formidable task: as of last week, more than 6,700 people were being quarantined at home or in hospitals. Part of those individuals include a group of 2,000 people who were potentially exposed to MERS at a different Seoul-area hospital.

Other countries, perhaps having watched South Korea, have responded more quickly. China, whose one case of MERS occurred when a traveling South Korean man fell ill in country, has had no new reported cases, and that patient has recovered. After confirming its first MERS case on June 19th, Thailand has also had no new cases, although it estimates 175 people may have been potentially exposed.  Malaysia, which shares a 400-mile land border with Thailand, has taken no chances and has stepped up health monitoring, checking body temperatures of people arriving at airports and all points of entry.

The South Korean health ministry has declared the outbreak “at a crossroads,” a revision of an earlier statement that the disease spread had plateaued. However, with expanded infection control and tracing measures in place, hopefully the outbreak will subside.

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