The Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) virus has so far infected 35 people and killed two in South Korea, an outbreak that the World Health Organization (WHO) says is the biggest outside of Saudi Arabia and which could potentially continue to get worse.

In an effort to prevent the further spread of the disease, South Korea already quarantined 1,379 people and closed schools. Over 700 schools from kindergarten to colleges are now closed in an effort to prevent more infection and control the outbreak.

Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea has called for thorough efforts in order to prevent the infectious disease from spreading to schools. The Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education has likewise released guidelines to help schools determine whether or not they should cancel classes as the final decision would depend on school principals.

The Ministry of Education notably fell short of requiring all schools to shut down their gates albeit temporarily in response to growing concerns over MERS because health authorities have yet to upgrade the MERS alert level from watch to warning.

The escalating public fear for possible infection is now reflected on the increasing number of commuters who wear face masks. Thousands of tourists who were mostly from Taiwan and China have also cancelled their trip to the country.

The first MERS case in South Korea was reported on May 20 after a 68-year old man who travelled to the Middle East became sick and sought treatment from two hospitals and two outpatient clinics. Since his diagnosis, over 1,300 people have already been exposed to the virus and have been placed on quarantine.

Some of these individuals were placed at state-designed facilities while others were simply advised to isolate themselves by staying in their homes.

President Park Geun-hye and the country's health officials have been criticized for their slow response to the initial outbreak. In a meeting with health officials, Park called for efforts to avert the spread of the disease and ease the fear of the public.

About 1,161 people worldwide are now infected by MERS. The virus has also caused 436 deaths and affected over 20 countries. Most of MERS cases are in Saudi Arabia.

MERS virus, which spreads through close contact with an infected person, has no vaccine or cure. It is considered a more fatal cousin of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, although it is less infectious. Mortality rate of the virus is at 37 percent.

Photo: Arthur Chapman | Flickr 

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