S.Korea to track cellphones to prevent MERS spread

Ed Jones | AFP | Getty Images

South Korean authorities will track the cellphones of hundreds of people under quarantine to prevent the spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and reported a fifth death in the outbreak, with the number of infections rising to 64.

The government, criticized over its lack of transparency in handling the outbreak, bowed to public pressure on Sunday and identified 24 health facilities where infections took place or MERS patients visited.

It reported 14 confirmed new cases of MERS, adding to the largest number outside of the Middle East.

"Please understand this is an unavoidable measure for the sake of our neighbors and families," Deputy Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan told a news briefing in the central city of Sejong, where he announced the plan to track the mobile phones of people under quarantine to ensure they stay at home.

Nearly 2,000 people in South Korea are under quarantine, some in health care facilities but most at home, including an entire village of about 105 people in the southwest after a resident who visited a hospital where the country's first patient with MERS was treated turned out to be infected.

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Late last month, a South Korean man broke a voluntary house quarantine and flew to Hong Kong and then traveled to mainland China, where he tested positive for MERS.

South Korea's outbreak of the often-deadly MERS virus, first reported on May 20, has prompted fear and the closure last week of more than 1,000 schools, with thousands of tourists canceling plans to visit the country.

"We can absolutely control this because all MERS cases in our country are infections in health facilities, not spreading into communities," Choi said.

First identified in humans in 2012, MERS is caused by a coronavirus from the same family as the one that triggered Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. But MERS has a much higher death rate at 38 percent, according to World Health Organization figures.

Experts Predict Falloff Soon

Choi, who is also the country's finance minister, said there was no need for a supplementary budget to help the country's economy weather the outbreak. With the economy already flagging, the MERS outbreak is adding pressure for another interest rate cut, possibly as soon as the central bank's next policy meeting on June 11.

"We ask for people not to be over-sensitive so as not to dampen economic activities," Choi said.

The latest fatality was a 75-year-old man who had been in the same Seoul hospital emergency room where a total of 17 people, including two medical staff, are believed to have been infected with MERS, South Korea's health ministry said.

The South Korean MERS outbreak is traced to a man who returned from a business trip to the Middle East. His wife, who was also infected, has recovered and became the first in the outbreak to be discharged from the hospital, officials said on Saturday.

The WHO said on Friday there was no evidence to suggest sustained human to human transmission in the community.

"Even if this arrives in communities, it's very unlikely to become pandemic," said Eom Joong-sik, professor of infectious diseases at Hallym University's medical college. "If we prevent transmissions between hospitals, we will see only episodic cases from now on."

Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, added that measures being taken by South Korea such as isolating suspected cases and monitoring those in contact with patients should stop the outbreak.

"There will be a time lag, since the disease takes some days to develop, but if the proper measures are being taken, there should soon be a large falloff in the number of new cases," he said.

Health experts say the worst-case scenario is the virus changes and spreads rapidly, as SARS did in 2002-2003 when it killed about 800 people around the world.

South Korea's new cases bring the total number globally to about 1,208, based on WHO data, with at least 444 related deaths.