MERS in Korea: Why This Outbreak Can Be Stopped Soon

Korea Chair Platform

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is caused by a mildly contagious virus that can cause a life-threatening pneumonia typically in persons with any of four pre-existing medical conditions: lung disease, kidney disease, immunodeficiency, or diabetes. Given the ongoing first MERS outbreak in Korea, beginning when a traveler returned home from the Middle East and then became ill one month ago, there are several key points to know about this virus and why it can be stopped in Korea soon.

First, the virus that causes MERS is only a distant relative of the virus that caused the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and it is much less contagious than SARS or influenza. Second, MERS outbreaks are mostly linked to hospitals, and these outbreaks have been stopped in at least six other countries, preventing MERS epidemics from spreading in the general population of any country. Third, in most persons without the above four pre-existing conditions the MERS virus causes less severe or mild illness, or even no symptoms at all. Fourth, genetic sequencing in several laboratories of the virus from at least two Korean patients (one hospitalized in China) does not show any evidence of a mutation that would make this virus more contagious than any other MERS virus in the Middle East.

Daniel R. Lucey MD, MPH