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MERS Outbreak Anxiety Spreads to North Korea

Hospital workers and visitors wearing masks pass by a precaution against the MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, virus at a quarantine tent for people who could be infected with the MERS virus at Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul, South Kore

The South Korean government is taking stronger measures to contain the spread of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) as the number of confirmed cases rose again Thursday to 35. In addition to isolating more people who may have been exposed to the disease and closing more schools, South Korea is also acting to ensure the disease does not spread north of the border.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said Thursday that it will install three thermal scanners in the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea to be used to detect anyone who may be showing signs of illness. The complex is a jointly run industrial zone located just north of the inter-Korean border, where on average 300 to 400 South Koreans and 52,000 North Koreans work.

The Unification Ministry said the North Korean government requested the thermal scanners as well as a supply of masks for workers to wear to prevent the possible spread of the deadly virus.

No MERS cases have been reported in North Korea and the ministry says these are purely preventive measures being taken.

Seoul also set up thermal scanners in the industrial zone last year during the Ebola outbreak and in 2009 over concerns about avian flu. North Korea has shown particular concern over outbreaks of deadly illnesses. Last year during the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, it closed its borders to foreign tourists and enforced a strict 21-day quarantine period on anyone entering the country.

In South Korea, health authorities have been criticized for being slow to recognize and react to the spread of the deadly and contagious virus.

In an emergency meeting Thursday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye called for "utmost efforts" to curb the spread of the virus and ease public fear.

But the number of infected patients in South Korea has slowly crept higher each day. On Thursday, Kwon Jun-wook, South Korea’s Director of Public Health Policy at the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said five new cases of MERS were confirmed.

Kwon said the newly confirmed cases are a health care worker and visitors who had contact with the first confirmed patient at the same ward. The other two patients are cases of infection in other hospitals, he said.

The first confirmed patient was a Korean man who returned to Seoul in May after travelling to the Middle East. He then developed a cough and fever, and visited four medical facilities seeking treatment before he was properly diagnosed. Along the way he inadvertently infected numerous others and triggered the largest outbreak of MERS outside of the Middle East.

MERS is a respiratory illness that initially produces flu like symptoms but can escalate to pneumonia and kidney failure. The first case was identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. There is no known cure or vaccine. On average one in four people infected with it die as a result, although most of those who died also had other serious health issues.

The number of people placed under quarantine or isolation because they may have been exposed directly or indirectly to the virus has increased to more than 1,600. Some of these people are under observation at hospitals or other state facilities, but many have been advised to stay home.

The health ministry’s Kwon said the newest confirmed cases, like patient number 34, who he identified as a nurse, have been under observation and isolation for some time.

Kwon said the patient had a slight fever and headache on May 20. She was isolated and told to stay at home even though she didn’t have a fever over 37.5 degrees. But he said she started to have symptoms again on May 30, was tested, and was confirmed to be positive on Wednesday.

The number of related school closures has also risen to more than 800.

In the Seoul subway system the number of commuters wearing masks increases on a daily basis.

Earlier this week South Korea imposed an international travel ban for anyone who has been exposed to MERS after an infected Korean businessman travelled to China through Hong Kong before he was diagnosed with the disease.

VOA Seoul Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.