Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General for Health Security of World Health Organization(WHO), speaks during a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, June 17, 2015. The World Health Organization on Wednesday said that the MERS outbreak in South Korea currently does not constitute a public health emergency of international concern. (Xinhua/Xu Jinquan)
Though the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS) affecting South Korea (ROK) is preoccupying, it has yet to reach a public health emergency of international concern, World Health Organization (WHO) Assistant Director-General for Health Security Keiji Fukuda said on Wednesday.
A ninth meeting of the Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak in South Korea was convened on Tuesday, during which the Committee was updated by the WHO Secretariat on epidemiological and scientific developments, risks assessments, and control and prevention measures.
This follows the conclusion of a joint WHO and South Korea in-country mission last week which sought to gain information and review the situation on the ground.
The Joint Mission found that the main factors behind the initial spread of the virus were linked to the lack of awareness of both healthcare workers and the general public about the virus, inadequate infection prevention measures in hospitals and prolonged contact of infected MERS patients with other patients in crowded hospitals.
The practice of seeking care at multiple hospitals and the custom of family members visiting inpatients were also pinpointed as decisive factors in the initial spread of the disease.
"This is the largest outbreak of MERS that has occurred outside of the Middle East," Fukuda said, adding that the outbreak has resulted in 162 cases of infections and 19 confirmed deaths to date.
He also stated that some 10,000 people have been monitored since the beginning of the outbreak, and that there are currently 6,500 individuals who are being monitored as a precautionary measure.
Though the outbreak in South Korea is associated with virus-transmission in healthcare settings, Fukuda explained that it wouldn't be surprising to see future transmissions occur outside of this environment.
"Even given this possibility, right now we do not see any evidence of this virus causing sustained transmission," Fukuda said, despite prevailing scientific gaps in how exactly the virus is transmitted between people.
As well as calling for continued research, Fukuda furthermore mentioned how critical it is to maintain high levels of surveillance and monitoring, even if the number of new cases appears to be declining.
First identified in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, MERS has an approximate mortality rate of 36 percent according to WHO, and the virus appears to cause more severe disease in older people, and those with weakened immune systems and chronic diseases such as cancer, lung disease and diabetes.