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(Yonhap Interview) S. Koreans should not be 'overly panicked' over MERS outbreak: U.S. expert

All Headlines 05:30 June 10, 2015

By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, June 9 (Yonhap) -- South Koreans should not be "overly panicked" over the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) as the virus has never been able to sustain community-based transmission and can be halted with simple infection control, an American expert said Tuesday.

Amesh Adalja, a medical doctor and infectious disease specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, also said that shutting down schools may be psychologically helpful in calming the public, but such measures are not warranted.

"Any time an emerging infectious disease appears in an area in a large enough number, public panic is anticipated," he said in an email interview with Yonhap News Agency. "However, in terms of threat perception, the general public in South Korea should not be overly panicked because this outbreak is linked to a hospital cluster and, now that it has been fully recognized, simple infection control procedures can halt it."

Since the discovery of the first MERS case in South Korea last month, the virus has spread quickly to a total of 95 confirmed cases and seven deaths as of Tuesday, making the country the worst-hit outside the Middle East and the second-largest outbreak after Saudi Arabia.

Public fears have grown dramatically as nearly 3,000 people have also been ordered to put themselves in self-isolation over concern they might have been exposed to the virus, and thousands of schools have been ordered closed to stop the virus from spreading further.

"The South Korean MERS outbreak is a hospital-based cluster and as such has not been spreading in the community. Closing schools may calm the public but, based on the outbreak's characteristics and the fact that MERS has never been able to sustain community-based transmission it is not warranted," Adalja said.

He said that teenage infections in a hospital setting are not a cause for increased concern. Though people of all ages are susceptible to infection with MERS, teenagers tend to be healthier than older age groups and usually have mild cases and recover quickly, he said.

The doctor emphasized that MERS "has not demonstrated the ability to sustain community transmission."

The virus "is primarily transmitted via respiratory droplets that are rapidly brought to the ground via gravity. It does not spread efficiently in the air in the manner of tuberculosis or measles," he said. "Aerosolization is definitely a risk in a hospital setting when patients undergo specific aerosol-generating procedures ... but we have not confirmed this type of spread outside of healthcare settings."

The rapid pace the virus spread in South Korea has raised concern it might have mutated to be more contagious. But Adalja said such a possibility is low.

"All viruses mutate but it's important to remember that most mutations do not add up to anything in terms of new characteristics, which usually require a series of mutations. Sequence data on this strain shows it to be consistent with Middle East strains," he said.

"I don't anticipate that MERS will mutate to become more contagious but it will be important to track its sequence changes," he added.

The expert said that South Korea's massive outbreak is the result of "a missed opportunity for diagnosis coupled with lax infection control."

In order to extinguish the outbreak, hospitals should practice "meticulous" infection control and health-care providers should be made aware of the risk of MERS and not neglect to obtain travel histories on patients with compatible symptoms, he said.

"The public health authorities should speak to the public frankly, laying out the risks, what is known, what is unknown, and what their outbreak control plans include," he said.


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