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Suspected MERS patient flies to China

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May 29,2015
Fears over the spread of a potentially fatal respiratory disease grew Thursday as two more patients were diagnosed with Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), bringing the number of patients in the country to seven. And a relative of two MERS patients left Korea for China even though he was showing symptoms of the disease.

The Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported Thursday that a 71-year-old man who was at the same hospital as the first patient diagnosed with MERS tested positive. The second of the new patients is a 28-year old nurse from the same hospital.

A CDC official said the two had been hospitalized at a state-designated medical facility and were undergoing medical treatment. With seven cases, Korea has the most MERS cases outside of the Middle East.

And while the CDC is not exactly sure how the most recent two patients were infected, it is still possible that all six patients were directly infected by Patient No. 1, a 68-year-old man who traveled to the Middle East and returned to Korea on May 4, and that transmission hasn’t widened.

Yang Byeong-guk, director of the disease control team at the CDC, said that Patient No. 6’s case seems unusual because he did not share a room with Patient No. 1 at the hospital.

“We are trying to track down how the sixth patient may have contracted the disease from the first patient,” said Yang. The two patients also used different bathrooms at the hospital.

A new headache for the disease control authorities is a 44-year-old man who may have caught the virus from two of his family members, his father and sister, who were in the same hospital room as Patient No. 1 and became Patients No. 3 and 4. The 44-year old flew out of Korea on a business trip to China Tuesday despite advice from his doctor to wait and see if he was disease-free.

The government said the man, whose identity has been withheld, had a temperature of over 38 degree Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) on Monday, a possible symptom of MERS. The man came in close contact with his 76-year-old father, Patient No. 3, during a visit to his hospital room. His sister caught the disease after caring for her father in that room.

The CDC said it notified its Chinese counterparts about the man’s arrival in China and he was tested for the disease. Results were expected late Thursday night or Friday.

Information about 28 passengers who sat near the man on Tuesday’s flight was given to Chinese authorities. There were 158 passengers on the plane and eight crew members.

Questions over the authorities’ ability to control the disease were raised after reports on the man’s departure from Korea. The CDC’s Yang admitted the government should have paid more attention to other relatives of Patients No. 3 and 4. “We admit fault in failing to confirm that the patient had a son who visited his hospital room. We are very sorry about this.” Korea has no previous experience dealing with MERS, which first broke out in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and is most prevalent in the Middle East. The disease has a latent period of up to two weeks and presents flu-like symptoms. Officials said the viral disease is not transmitted via air but through direct and close contact. A 25-year-old woman who stayed in Algeria for four months and returned to Jeongeup, North Jeolla, via Qatar developed symptoms similar to MERS Tuesday. She tested negative for the disease.

According to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, a total of 1,142 people had been diagnosed with the disease as of May 16, and so far it has resulted in 465 deaths, which is a 40.7 percent fatality rate.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]


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