The World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that the outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in South Korea has become large and complex and more cases could arise, albeit the UN agency does not see signs that the infectious disease is spreading in the community.

WHO assistant director general Keiji Fukuda likewise said that there was no indication that the virus has genetically changed to make it more transmissible.

South Korea's first diagnosis was of a businessman who traveled to the Middle East. He was found infected with the disease on May 20. Since then, 138 other people in South Korea have been infected with the virus, killing at least 14 individuals. The outbreak is now the largest outside Saudi Arabia, where MERS was first identified three years ago.

South Korea's first MERS patient visited several health centers before he was finally diagnosed with the disease, leaving behind a trail of infection. All MERS cases in the country have been tied to health facilities.

At least two hospitals are now sealed off and about 3,500 individuals are already in quarantine. Some are quarantined in medical facilities, while others have been advised to isolate themselves in their homes. Individuals who may have possibly come in contact with those infected with MERS have also been isolated and tested.

Officials said that they quarantine people who were in contact with infected individuals and monitor them, so there could be lesser chances for the disease to spread.

"National authorities are implementing containment strategy, which consists in early detection of cases, early isolation and contact tracing," WHO said in a statement released on Friday. "As of 12 June 2015, 3,680 contacts have been identified (3,453 are under home monitoring and 227 under facility monitoring) and 1,249 contacts have been released."

Fukuda said that the government should continue with its strong control measures such as tracing the contacts of infected individuals and preventing suspected patients from traveling since it is still too early to declare that the situation is over.

Fukuda said that overcrowded hospital wards and emergency rooms in South Korea were possibly a factor to a wider-than-anticipated transmission of MERS, which typically spreads poorly. He also said that the people's habit of visiting several health facilities to treat the same infection and having too many friends and relatives visiting patients in the hospital might have also contributed to the spread of the disease.

Photo: NIAID | Flickr 

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