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South Korea Scrambles To Contain MERS Virus

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South Korea Scrambles To Contain MERS Virus

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South Korea Scrambles To Contain MERS Virus

South Korea Scrambles To Contain MERS Virus

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Middle East respiratory syndrome has killed seven people and infected nearly 100 others in South Korea. The World Health Organization is out with new findings about the science behind this outbreak.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The dangerous respiratory disease known as MERS continues spreading in South Korea, and so do the quarantines. The disease has now killed seven people and infected nearly a hundred. And in the scramble to contain the virus, more than 2,500 people are under quarantine orders, and more than 2000 schools are closed. NPR's Elise Hu has been following this story and joins us from Seoul. And Elise, describe how the MERS scare is affecting just everyday life in South Korea.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Well, we're seeing cancellations galore, so attendance at movie theaters and baseball games, for instance, is down by at least a third. The tourism board here reports 45,000 canceled trips to South Korea. And that number might even climb because Hong Kong today put out a red alert, advising its citizens not to travel to Korea unless absolutely essential. Even churchgoers are reportedly bowing to one another instead of shaking hands. And of course, there's the massive quarantines. People who aren't even showing symptoms are being quarantined and monitored with calls to their houses as much as twice a day. And if the government can't find someone who's supposed to be in quarantine, officials are sending cops to their houses.

MONTAGNE: Well, so far, what do the scientists know about this virus, especially since it's supposedly quite deadly, but very few people have died?

HU: What we know so far is that the only people who are catching MERS in South Korea are catching it inside hospitals. So it hasn't spread to other public places like restaurants, like subways. And that's actually giving doctors a lot of hope. They're hoping that the spread can be contained so long as hospitals maintain tight protocols. What's a mystery, though, is how this virus is spreading to dozens of people inside the hospitals themselves. Scientists don't believe that MERS is an airborne virus so they're asking questions like who or what is the mediator inside hospitals that's facilitating the spread.

MONTAGNE: The World Health Organization is sufficiently concerned that it's on the ground in Seoul now. And what has it learned about the virus?

HU: The organization put out its initial report late last night. There's a couple of key points to highlight. One is that scientists are pretty confident there haven't been significant mutations to the original Middle Eastern strain of MERS, so the virus shouldn't be stronger or more dangerous or transmitted differently than what scientists know so far. The WHO also reports that the index patient here, who was a businessman who traveled to Saudi Arabia, could've caught the bug from an animal or animal products and not another human. Camels are believed to be the transmission point. So we're talking about this businessman possibly coming in contact with camel meat, camel milk or even camel urine. And the report says that this is suspected because the virus seen in Korea isn't an exact match to the virus seen in a Riyadh outbreak of February of this year.

MONTAGNE: Well, could I just ask you then, if camels are key to transmitting this virus - I'm going to take a guess here, but I don't think there are an enormous number of camels in South Korea or here in America, if that's what we're concerned about ultimately - its spread - doesn't that suggest that it's really and truly not going to take hold?

HU: Your argument, Renee, is exactly what scientists are saying and what health officials are telling folks in South Korea. They're saying not to worry. In fact, camels and zoos in South Korea were quarantined for most of last week because of public fears, but they have all been testing negative for the MERS virus. But again, since this virus is only spreading in hospitals, that is giving doctors some hope that this can be contained within the next few weeks or few months.

MONTAGNE: Elise Hu is our correspondent in Seoul. Thanks very much.

HU: You bet.

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