South Korea on MERS alert: Is it safe to visit?

South Korea Subway

What you need to know about South Korea’s first MERS case in three years. Source: Shutterstock.

LAST WEEK, a bunch of passengers on an Emirates flight EK322 arrived at Incheon Airport in South Korea from Dubai.

A 61-year-old male who was on the flight was later diagnosed with the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) after returning home from his visit. This has sent the South Korean health authorities into overdrive in locating people, mostly foreigners, who may have been in contact with the man.

The Korean man had two flights on his return trip – Emirates EK860 from Kuwait to Dubai, and EK322 from Dubai to Seoul. The second flight he was on had about 440 passengers, according to The Korean Herald.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said the man took a business trip to Kuwait from Aug 16 to Sept 6 and returned home via the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Friday.

“He visited a local hospital during his stay in Kuwait for diarrhea but showed the same symptom again on his way back home. He was rushed to the emergency room of Samsung Medical Center in southern Seoul upon his arrival at Incheon International Airport,” The Korean Herald reported.

“The Samsung hospital checked the patient in an isolated section of the emergency room and reported him to the health authorities as a suspected case of MERS for showing symptoms of fever, phlegm, and pneumonia. He was then moved to Seoul National University Hospital in central Seoul and tested positive for the disease.”

“The man currently is not in a critical condition and does not have such symptoms as shortness of breath and a decrease in blood pressure, but we have to watch him closely because his conditions may deteriorate in the next one to two weeks judging from our experiences from the previous outbreak,” The Korean Herald quoted Seoul National University Hospital doctor Kim Nam Jung as saying.

The Seoul National University Hospital building in Jongno-gu, Seoul city. Source: Shutterstock.

The South Korean health authorities have since managed to locate 40 or the 50 foreign nationals who may have been in contact with the MERS patient – a feat as foreign travelers in South Korea usually do not have local phone numbers.

They are still searching for the 10 remaining individuals via public surveillance camera footage as well as local accommodation.

Meanwhile, the KCDC has upgraded its National Infectious Disease alert from “blue” to “yellow”. Blue refers to no immediate threat of importing MERS cases to South Korea while “yellow” means domestic important of the disease from abroad has occurred.

KCDC also advised individuals visiting the Middle East to wash their hands frequently and maintain proper personal hygiene, and cautioned against visiting local farms, coming into contact with camels or consuming camel products.

South Korea MERS

Tourists wearing a surgical face masks during the MERS outbreak in South Korea in 2015. Source: Shutterstock.

This is the first case of MERS diagnosed in South Korea in three years. The disease, which has no known cure or vaccine, is caused by a novel coronavirus carried by camels and has a fatality rate of 20 to 46 percent.

In 2015, an outbreak killed 38 people, infected 186 others, and triggered widespread panic from May 2015 to July 2015.

In that period, 100,000 tourist visits to the country were canceled. South Korea’s department store sales decreased by 16.5 percent compared to the same period the year before and retail shops also decreased 3.4 percent.

It is believed that South Korea lost millions in tourism revenue.

For now, South Korea is still safe to visit. If you are visiting sometime soon, carry hand sanitizers and surgical masks with you as preventive measures.

And be sure to seek medical help at the first sign of MERS-like symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, diarrhea and nausea/vomiting.