Classes Canceled, 1,300 Quarantined In S. Korea's Scramble To Stop MERS : Goats and Soda Additional confirmed cases of the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, have led to more than 200 school closures and a minor public panic in South Korea.

Classes Canceled, 1,300 Quarantined In S. Korea's Scramble To Stop MERS

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We have news this morning of battles in medicine. In a moment, we'll hear how the legal system is handling arguments over vaccinations and whether those vaccines have left people who received them worse off.


A different health struggle is playing out in South Korea. Authorities there are scrambling to stop an outbreak of a severe illness, Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS. It's claimed two lives in that country and forced more than 1,300 other people to be quarantined. The fear is heightened because MERS has no known cure or vaccine. NPR's Elise Hu is monitoring the situation at her base in Seoul. Good morning.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Elise, this all started a couple of weeks ago with a single case. Remind us of that.

HU: That's right. The outbreak all started when a 68-year-old man returned from a business trip to the Middle East. That was in mid-May. Once he came down with symptoms of MERS, which are fever, cough, difficulty breathing, health officials say he went to four different hospitals in South Korea for treatment before getting correctly diagnosed with MERS. In that time when he was going from clinic to clinic, that single patient may have infected more than 20 others, since the majority of cases here are from the same hospital where that first patient was admitted.

MONTAGNE: And we know at least one patient ignored quarantine orders, traveled to China, and how is that patient doing?

HU: That's right - a man in his 40s. He got sick after visiting a hospitalized relative near Seoul. He ignored those orders. Then, he flew to Hong Kong, got on a bus and rode to the Guangdong province. He then tested positive for MERS in China. That marks the first MERS case in China. He's currently in isolation there, and more than 60 Chinese have been quarantined on the mainland and in Hong Kong as a result of the scare there.

MONTAGNE: One has to wonder how serious this is because, of course, we do hear about these serious diseases making their way out of where they started. Any sense there, in South Korea, that the spread of MERS is slowing down, that it's getting effectively contained?

HU: Well, as far as we know now, as far as scientists know now, MERS has a 40 percent death rate. And memories of SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, are still pretty fresh, even though that was more than 10 years ago. And this is a pretty new virus. It was first detected in 2012, so there's a lot of questions about the way it behaves like, what exactly happened in those first days when that first patient was seeking treatment? Is this strain slightly different than the one in the Middle East? The World Health Organization says it's been in close contact with South Korean officials and that the quality of the reporting on the spread of this particular outbreak has been really rapid, so they're getting a lot of real-time insight. And scientists are going to try to explain this fast expansion, in particular in South Korea.

MONTAGNE: So South Koreans - how are they reacting to this? It must be very frightening for them.

HU: Well, if you're out and about on the streets of Seoul today, you'll see a lot more people donning those surgical face masks than they were even yesterday. That's as a preventative measure. And this has certainly been disruptive already to regular Koreans. The education minister says more than 200 schools have already been closed now in an effort to prevent infection from spreading to students. And, as you mentioned, more than 1,300 Koreans are under quarantine, so it is certainly affecting the broader population in a way that goes beyond the 30 confirmed cases.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Elise Hu speaking to us from Seoul, South Korea. Thanks very much.

HU: You bet.

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