South Korea Isolates Almost 700 People In Struggle To Contain MERS Outbreak

South Korean hospital workers wearing masks stand in front of a public notice on MERS while setting up a separated emergency center at the National Medical Center in Seoul on June 1, 2015. South Korean President Park Geun-Hye scolded health officials on June 1, over their response to an outbreak of the MERS virus, as the number of infections climbed to 18, with nearly 700 under observation. Major South Korean hospitals are setting up special MERS clinic rooms to fight the disease. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE        (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
South Korean hospital workers wearing masks stand in front of a public notice on MERS while setting up a separated emergency center at the National Medical Center in Seoul on June 1, 2015. South Korean President Park Geun-Hye scolded health officials on June 1, over their response to an outbreak of the MERS virus, as the number of infections climbed to 18, with nearly 700 under observation. Major South Korean hospitals are setting up special MERS clinic rooms to fight the disease. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

By Jack Kim

SEOUL, June 1 (Reuters) - South Korea struggled to contain an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome on Monday as health authorities announced three more cases, bringing the number of infections to 18 in just over 10 days.

Authorities are considering a ban on overseas travel for the nearly 700 people isolated for possible infection after a 44-year-old man broke a voluntary house quarantine last week and flew to Hong Kong and then traveled to mainland China.

The man subsequently tested positive for MERS, China's first confirmed case, setting off alarm bells as health officials traced his footsteps and tested dozens of people who had been in close contact with him.

South Korea's Health Ministry confirmed three more cases on Monday, but declined to identify the location of any of the cases.

All 18 cases have been linked to a 68-year-old man - who returned from Bahrain via Qatar on May 20 - who were either patients or visitors to the hospital where he was being treated.

First identified in humans in 2012, MERS is caused by a coronavirus from the same family as the one that triggered China's deadly 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). There is no cure or vaccine.

The World Health Organization (WHO) put the total number of cases globally at 1,150 with at least 427 related deaths.

It said last week there had been no sustained human-to-human spread and that it was not recommending screening of passengers or that travel or trade restrictions be imposed on South Korea.

In South Korea, one elderly patient who had a history of kidney ailment was in a serious condition, with weak vital signs requiring him to be on cardiac and respiratory support, the head of the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases, Kim Woo-joo, told a briefing.

"I've been asking myself whether there may be a genetic factor, if anything makes (Koreans) more vulnerable, but so far there's no evidence," said Kim, who is advising the Health Ministry on the outbreak.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control put South Korea's 18 cases the fourth highest number of confirmed cases, after Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

Public health authorities faced more criticism on Monday for failing to contain the spread of the virus after the initial case whose symptoms were first overlooked.

"We must find the reason for the high rate of transmission unlike in the cases of other countries," President Park Geun-hye told a meeting on Monday. (Additional reporting by Sohee Kim; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

1
Ebola is highly infectious and even being in the same room as someone with the disease can put you at risk
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Not as far as we know. Ebola isn't contagious until symptoms begin, and it spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of patients. It is not, from what we know of the science so far, an airborne virus. So contact with the patient's sweat, blood, vomit, feces or semen could cause infection, and the body remains infectious after death. Much of the spread in west Africa has been attributed to the initial distrust of medical staff, leaving many to be treated at home by loved ones, poorly equipped medics catching the disease from patients, and the traditional burial rites involving manually washing of the dead body. From what we know already, you can't catch it from the air, you can't catch it from food, you can't catch it from water.
2
Cancelling all flights from west Africa would stop the spread of Ebola
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This actually has pretty serious implications. British Airways suspended its four-times-weekly flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone until the end of March, the only direct flight to the region from the UK. In practice, anyone can just change planes somewhere else and get to Britain from Europe, north Africa, or the Middle East. And aid agencies say that flight cancellations are hampering efforts to get the disease under control, they rely on commercial flights to get to the infected regions. Liberia's information minister, Lewis Brown, told the Telegraph this week that BA was putting more people in danger. "We need as many airlines coming in to this region as possible, because the cost of bringing in supplies and aid workers is becoming prohibitive," he told the Telegraph. "There just aren't enough seats on the planes. I can understand BA's initial reaction back in August, but they must remember this is a global fight now, not just a west African one, and we can't just be shut out." Christopher Stokes, director of MSF in Brussels, agreed: “Airlines have shut down many flights and the unintended consequence has been to slow and hamper the relief effort, paradoxically increasing the risk of this epidemic spreading across countries in west Africa first, then potentially elsewhere. We have to stop Ebola at source and this means we have to be able to go there.”
3
Temperature screening at airports is an effective way to stop those who have the disease from travelling
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The screening process is pretty porous, especially when individuals want to subvert it. Wake up on the morning of your flight, feel a bit hot, and you definitely don't want to be sent to an isolation booth for days and have to miss your flight. Take an ibuprofen and you can lower your temperature enough to get past the scanners. And if you suspect you have Ebola, you might be desperate to leave, seeing how much better the treatment success has been in western nations. And experts have warned that you cannot expect people to be honest about who they have had contact with. Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola victim who died in Texas, told officials he had not been in contact with anyone with the disease, but had in fact visited someone in the late stages of the virus, though he said he believed it was malaria. The extra screening that the US implemented since his death probably wouldn't have singled out Duncan when he arrived from hard-hit Liberia last month, because he had no symptoms while travelling.
4
Border staff should stop people coming in to the country who are at risk
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They're not doctors, and it's a monumental task to train 23,500 people who work for the UK Border Agency how to correctly diagnose a complex disease, and spot it in the millions of people who come through British transport hubs. Public Health England has provided UK Border Force with advice on the assessment of an unwell patient on entry to UK, but they can't be expected to check everyone.
5
Screening at British airports should be implemented to stop unwell people coming in from affected areas
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As mentioned before, the UK, especially London, is a major transport hub. Unlike the US, most of those coming from west Africa will have crossed through Europe, so infected people could be coming from practically anywhere, not just flights directly from those countries. This would require the UK to screen every returning traveller, as people could return to the UK from an affected country through any port of entry. This would be huge numbers of low risk people, at vast, vast expense.