MERS outbreak is finally over, says government

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MERS outbreak is finally over, says government

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Incheon International Airport is crowded with Korean and foreign visitors on Tuesday, the day Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn declared that the Middle East respiratory disease outbreak had practically ended. [NEWSIS]

The government announced on Tuesday that Korea’s Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak practically came to an end, saying the potentially fatal disease was completely contained after 69 days.

The disease, which was brought to Korea by a 68-year-old man who returned from a business trip to the Middle East in May, sickened 186 people and claimed 36 lives. The first case was confirmed on May 20; the last patient was reported on July 5.

The number of people quarantined at home or in a medical facility after coming into contact with MERS patients spiked at nearly 7,000 in June and finally reached zero on Sunday.

Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn presided over the 35th MERS countermeasure meeting Tuesday morning at the Seoul Government Complex and discussed with ministers and officials of related government departments an assessment of the current situation and future plans to prevent such outbreaks.

“As the prime minister of the country, I feel deeply sorry for inconveniencing people [through the MERS outbreak],” Hwang said. “The medical field and government think the people should feel safe, since we have seen no new patients for 23 days, all 15 hospitals severely affected by MERS are lifted from government quarantine measures and the number of those under quarantine has reached zero.

“We hope people return to their ordinary lives and go about normal economic and cultural activities.”

However, the outbreak hasn’t ended, according to the World Health Organization’s standard, which considers an infectious disease outbreak ended after all patients test negative and two full latency periods transpire. In Korea, Patient No. 80 still tests positive for MERS. He is in stable condition.

Given that the latency period of MERS is two weeks, an official announcement of the end of the outbreak could come at the end of August at the earliest.

The government is planning to take this outbreak as an opportunity to establish a superior quarantine system for infectious diseases.

“[Related government departments] should do what they are supposed to do, including taking care of remaining patients, screening foreign visitors and supporting hospitals that have suffered losses,” Hwang said. “We should also quickly execute the supplementary budget approved by the National Assembly for a fast recovery of our economy and society.”

In the 22 trillion-won ($19 billion) stimulus package passed by the National Assembly last Friday, 20.8 billion won was earmarked to improve the prevention and management of infectious diseases.

“The government should assess the outbreak to improve the country’s quarantine system for new infectious diseases with better facilities, more experts and an improved hospital culture,” he continued. “We will figure out problems in the government’s initial response and the reasons for them, which will be followed by relevant measures.”

Hwang’s announcement on Tuesday was also considered a message to the badly affected tourism industry.

Following his announcement, several provinces in China, including Guangzhou, Shandong and Sichuan, and countries like the Czech Republic, Russia, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, Mongolia and Vietnam lifted their travel warnings to Korea.

Analysts say the announcement could have come earlier.

“The announcement of the end of the outbreak was made too late because there was already no threat of the spread of the disease,” said Oh Myoung-don, a professor of infectious diseases at Seoul National University Hospital. Meanwhile, the MERS countermeasure special committee of the National Assembly held its last general meeting on Tuesday and announced that the committee is ending its activities entirely in 48 days.

“We are wrapping up the special committee today,” said committee Chairman Shin Sang-jin of the ruling Saenuri Party on Tuesday. “Taking lessons from the outbreak, [the assembly] should generously expand the budget for quarantine efforts.”

BY KIM BONG-MOON [kim.bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]

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