South Korea on Monday released the last of 16,693 suspected patients who had been quarantined to prevent the possible further spread of the Middle East respiratory syndrome since the first outbreak in late May. With no one remaining under quarantine and 12 confirmed patients still at hospitals for treatment, Seoul is to announce a “de-facto end” of the health crisis Tuesday.
“We can now confirm that the possibility of community-transmission of the virus is almost zero,” said Choo Moo-jin, head of the Korean Medical Association, at a meeting with government officials and private health experts Monday.
The MERS outbreak has killed 36 and infected 186 since the index case was confirmed on May 20. The spread has consistently shown signs of fading, with no additional cases confirmed since July 6. The health crisis pushed the nation’s health authorities to put nearly 16,700 people under quarantine to prevent possible infection from May 30 to July 25, all of whom have now been released. Meanwhile, a total of 138 patients have fully recovered and were discharged from hospitals.
Seoul is to announce its “de-facto end” of the health crisis Tuesday. (Yonhap)
The World Health Organization states that the declaration of an end to an outbreak should be made at least 28 days after the last confirmed patient has completely recovered.
Among the 12 confirmed patients remaining in hospitals in Korea, 11 have tested negative for the virus and are currently being treated for after-effects of the disease. Of these, three are said to be in unstable condition, although the Health Ministry refused to identify them. It also did not comment further on the condition of the last remaining MERS-positive patient.
“We predict that the official announcement can be made as early as late August,” said Kim Woo-joo, a doctor and the head of the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases. “The medical staff are doing their best for the recovery of the last remaining MERS-positive patient.”
Although the official declaration will have to come later, the purpose of Tuesday’s announcement was to inform the public that the outbreak is practically over and it is now completely safe to return to their normal lives, according to the Health Ministry.
The MERS outbreak has dramatically affected the everyday lives of Koreans and the nation’s economy since late May, as it sparked a public health scare and eventually dampened consumer spending. Almost 3,000 schools nationwide were shut down in June, while more than 124,000 foreign tourists, mostly from China, canceled their trips to Korea in the same month.
The Bank of Korea cut its 2015 growth estimate to 2.8 percent from 3.1 percent earlier this month, citing the MERS outbreak as one of the biggest factors.
Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo, who has been criticized for his handling of the outbreak, is likely to be replaced once the official announcement declaring the end of the outbreak is made.
Under his leadership, the Health Ministry had refused to share the list of MERS-affected hospitals for more than two weeks after the first case was confirmed. The lack of transparency has been blamed for the public fear that eventually damaged the economy. The former economist has also been criticized for his lack of expertise in the field of public health.
By Claire Lee (email@example.com