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Despite MERS Outbreak, Normal Life Goes On in Seoul

  • Brian Padden

In Seoul, concern over the spread of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which on Tuesday rose to 95 confirmed cases and seven related deaths, has not significantly altered daily life for many in the city.

For the most part, health officials said, the spread of the deadly virus has been contained to those hospitals visited by the first Korean patient who came down with the disease.

Close to 3,000 people who may have been exposed have now been quarantined or ordered to stay home. More than 2,000 schools have closed and those that remain open are monitoring the health of the children.

Still, on a normal day in downtown Seoul it is difficult to tell there is a major outbreak of the deadly virus. The rush-hour subway trains are still crowded and only a relatively few commuters are wearing masks to protect against infection.

Fears of MERS has not deterred large crowds from gathering at Seoul’s famous Myeong-dong shopping district.

“I heard that people with weak immune systems get infected, and people in their 20s or 30s do not need to worry about it,” said Kim Hae-Deun, a young woman who was window shopping during her lunch hour.

Lee Seok and his co-workers still go out for lunch together, although they are now more aware of the risk of exposure to MERS.

“There are no suspicious patients with fever or similar symptoms around me, so I came here without any concern,” he said.

Tourists more cautious

Many of the people wearing masks in the downtown area are tourists.

Aki Sekimizu, who is visiting from Japan, said she and her friends seem more concerned about preventing exposure to the deadly contagious virus than Koreans do.

“I don’t know why people around me are not wearing a mask,” Sekimizu said.

MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It is a respiratory illness that initially produces flu-like symptoms but can escalate to pneumonia and kidney failure. There is no known cure or vaccine.

This MERS outbreak in South Korea began in May when a 68-year-old Korean man contracted the deadly disease during a trip to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

After he returned to South Korea, he fell ill and visited four hospitals, three in Seoul and one in the city of Pyeongtaek, located 80 kilometers south of the capital city, before he was properly diagnosed and put in isolation.

Medical care behind spread

The virus spread quickly from there, in part because officials did not move quickly to isolate everyone the first patient may have come in contact with.

Also, the culture of Korean medical care is also seen as playing a role in the spread. It is not uncommon for an ill person in Korea to "shop around" when seeking medical treatment, visiting a range of medical facilities, especially if symptoms persist.

Also family members in South Korea often help care for patients and can spend long hours in the hospital, where they can potentially be exposed to viruses and could then become carriers to spread the virus outside.

One man exposed to the first patient in a hospital in South Korea traveled to China through Hong Kong before he was diagnosed with MERS and isolated.

South Korea now has the second-highest number of MERS infections after Saudi Arabia, according to data from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

On average 1-in-4 people infected with the virus die as a result. However, most of the related fatalities were either elderly or had other pre-existing serious health conditions.

Most healthy individuals infected with the MERS infection suffer from a strong flu for a number of days but do recover.

Travel advisory

While downtown Seoul is still lively, tourism in South Korea has dropped significantly since the MERS outbreak. Many public events have been canceled or have seen a drop in attendance.

Hong Kong issued a "red alert" advisory on Tuesday, advising visitors to avoid travel to South Korea.

The Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong has canceled all tours to South Korea, excluding cruises for the remainder of June, which could affect 10,000 to 12,000 travelers.

Officials in Seoul expect the rate of MERS infections to decline in the coming days and hope to soon restore public confidence and resume business as usual.

VOA Seoul Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.