On Friday, officials from the World Health Organization announced that the United Nations agency would send a team of health experts to Seoul to assess South Korea’s public health response to the recent outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome plaguing the nation.
“The pressing objective of this joint [UN-South Korea] mission is to gain information and review the situation in the Republic of Korea, including epidemiological pattern, the characteristic of the virus, and clinical features,” a statement from WHO said. “The team will also assess the public health response efforts and provide recommendations for response measures going forward.”
Today, 23 new cases were announced and a sixth victim was claimed by MERS. Six have died in South Korea from this outbreak, and 87 have been infected. In response, the South Korean government shut down thousands of schools and quarantined more than 2300.
“I’m cautiously predicting, but I think the peak was reached today. It’ll hopefully start to look stable after tomorrow,” Korean Health Minister Moon Hyung Pyo told a parliamentary hearing.
MERS is a deadly virus which has killed about 40 percent of those infected with it. The virus, which attacks a victim’s lungs and breathing tubes, originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Doctors have not discovered a vaccine.
Fever, cough, and shortness of breath are all symptoms of the disease, which can make it difficult to detect. Although it is deadly, most victims who died had pre-existing medical conditions, such as chronic lung, heart, or kidney disease.
The disease is spread by person-to-person contact, which makes it much easier to contain. However, healthcare workers are at risk of infection if they do not take proper safety precautions. A doctor who worked with a MERS patient attended a symposium in Seoul, and, after it was discovered he was infected, thousands had to be quarantined.
Mystery stills shrouds much of the disease, and “information gaps are considerable” officials say.
“The joint mission will bring us one step closer to gaining a better understanding of the nature of the virus,” the WHO statement said.
Three cases of MERS have been confirmed in the United States. Two of those cases occurred in healthcare professionals who previously worked in Saudi Arabia, where the disease originated. The third occurred in an Illinois man who had a business meeting with one of the health workers. However, he successfully fought off the infection before doctors were even aware of it.