Officials in South Korea have announced the death of a third person from Middle East respiratory syndrome, also known as the MERS virus.
This Thursday officials confirmed the death of an 82-year-old man from the virus. The deceased becomes the third victim of the virus in South Korea, where over 1,160 schools and kindergartens have been temporarily closed as a safety measure, writes Choe Sang-Hun for The New York Times.
Third death from virus in South Korea
According to a government statement, tests were carried out following the man’s death on Wednesday, and results showed that he had been infected with the MERS virus. However the man was not part of the list of 35 South Koreans who were known to be infected, raising concerns over the ability of the South Korean government to prevent the spread of the virus.
Two other South Korean MERS virus patients died on Monday.
The 82-year-old man was in hospital for asthma and pneumonia treatment in late May when a new patient moved into the same room as him. The new arrival was found to be infected with the MERS virus. A further three patients who were staying in that room have tested positive.
Previous tests showed that the 82-year-old was not infected, and he had been placed in quarantine for further observation at the time of his death.
Schools and kindergartens closed
Another wave of schools and kindergartens temporarily closed their doors due to fears of the MERS virus, with the number of closed institutions increasing from 230 to 1,164. The vast majority are located in Gyeonggi Province surrounding the capital, Seoul.
A large number of the reported MERS cases are related to patients thought to have been infected while in hospitals in Gyeonggi Province, but government officials have not provided the names and locations of those hospitals. The MERS virus has been found at six medical facilities so far, and those infected have all been patients, medical staff members or visitors.
Authorities have attempted to isolate anyone who may have been in contact with the patients. So far over 1,660 people have been isolated in their homes or official facilities. It appears that North Korea is now in fear of the virus, after Pyongyang asked Seoul to borrow heat-detecting cameras in order to screen possible MERS patients.
North Korea implements screenings at border
The Unification Ministry of South Korea reported that North Korea was concerned about the MERS virus entering the country due to infection among South Korean factory managers working in the Kaesong industrial park, a joint venture between the two countries. The managers oversee a staff of 54,000 North Koreans in 124 factories.
Despite fears of the virus, the Unification Ministry claims that there had been no signs that the North would temporarily close the complex. The government in Pyongyang sees Kaesong as an important source of revenue, and thus far it appears that economic benefits have outweighed the fear of the MERS virus.
South Korea announced plans to send three heat-detecting cameras to the North. Similar equipment was sent North in November last year during the Ebola outbreak, as North Korea implemented tighter inspections at its borders. A ban on foreign tourists entering the country was only ended this March.
The fear of infection is high in North Korea, as thousands of citizens are believed to working on construction projects throughout the Middle East. The MERS virus was first detected in the region in 2012, and most of the 470 deaths due to the virus have occurred there.
Government response criticized
The first case in South Korea was a man who had traveled to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain. His infection was discovered on May 20, but he claimed not to have felt ill during his trip. It is feared that not enough was done to isolate the man after doctors discovered that he was infected.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye has admitted that more could have been done to prevent the spread of the virus. “Initial reaction for new infectious diseases like MERS is very important, but there were some insufficiency in the initial response, including the judgment on its contagiousness,” she said.
The MERS virus belongs to the same group of viruses as SARS, and the common cold. Experts have been surprised by the outbreak in South Korea, given that previous research has shown that the MERS virus does not transmit easily between humans.
“So far, the virus has been circulating in humans for three years,” said Dr. Leo Poon, a virology expert at the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong. “We found little transmission in human. We know there is human-to-human transmission, but it’s not sustainable.”
Given this fact, and the sophisticated healthcare system in South Korea, experts believe that the failure to properly isolate the first patients has led to the spread of the virus.