The MERS virus is scary, but South Korea is probably overreacting

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. South Korea is frantic about MERS today. MERS stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. It’s caused by a virus that obviously was first detected in the Middle East. But now an outbreak in South Korea has killed three people, and in response schools were closed across the country today. South Korea’s health ministry says that more than 1,600 people are under observation. I’ve got correspondent Jason Strother on the line from Seoul. What is the latest with the MERS outbreak there, Jason?


Jason Strother: Marco, the Seoul city government says that patient #35 of the 35 confirmed cases of MERS is a doctor at a local hospital, and despite showing symptoms of the disease for the past week, he attended a large medical conference and may have exposed thousands of people to the virus.


Werman: Well, the world got very concerned about Ebola when doctors in West Africa started getting sick and dying--this has not happened to this doctor. But how serious is this outbreak?


Strother: Right, well of the 35 confirmed cases, authorities say these mostly consist of medical personnel or visitors to the hospital. There’s no evidence yet that it’s been widespread throughout the public, that it’s people who had come in close contact with patient zero or some of the other people who caught it from patient zero inside these hospitals.


Werman: So, closing down hundreds of schools and the universities are closed, it seems like a drastic step. Is it justifiable?


Strother: Well Marco, the government is actually getting some mixed responses about that. The education ministry gave schools the option to close down, although health ministry officials say that this might have been an overreaction. Even the WHO, the World Health Organization, also says that this type of closing down schools or avoiding public spaces--it’s not going to do anything; MERS is not transmittable through the air, it requires very close contact, bodily fluid contact with someone who is wheezing, coughing, sneezing. So, there’s sort of a sense here that the school systems--there’s been sporting events that have been postponed--that these are overreactions.


Werman: Okay, so three people have died so far, 1,600 people under observation. How dangerous is it?


Strother: It depends on how close you are to the 35 people who are confirmed to have come down with MERS. Somewhere between 30% and 40% of people who contract the virus die from it, and they do expect many more cases to come out here in South Korea. However, South Korea does have state of the art medical facilities, they’ve handled epidemics like SARS, bird flu, H1N1; they’re well-equipped to handle this. So, 30% to 40%--it could be a lot less here just because of the medical technology.


Werman: Finally Jason, if this virus, MERS, was thought to have been started in Saudi Arabia, how did it wind up in South Korea?


Strother: Last month, a 68-year-old South Korean man visited Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. He came back home, got a bit sick, went from hospital to hospital trying to find out what was wrong. Finally, at the fourth hospital, he was diagnosed with MERS. The cases that came up after him were people who had close contact with him.


Werman: In other words, in those other hospitals perhaps that he had visited before landing at the one that diagnosed the MERS.


Strother: That’s right, Marco. The three deaths caused by MERS so far were elderly people who were already in the hospital, who had some sort of respiratory ailment already, and they were either in contact with patient zero or other people who were affected in the hospital by patient zero.


Werman: Jason Strother in Seoul, South Korea. Thank you very much for your time.


Strother: Thank you, Marco.