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WHO team headed to S Korea amid MERS cases

June 5, 2015

The WHO has said it will send a team to South Korea to assist in local efforts to contain an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. This followed the news that a fourth South Korean has died from the disease.

Südkorea Über 680 Menschen unter Quarantäne
Image: Reuters/C. Jae-gu/Yonhap

A statement posted on the World Health Organization's (WHO) website on Friday said the team, to be led by its assistant director-general for health security, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, would set up a joint mission with the South Korean health ministry.

The statement said the WHO team would be looking to "assess the public health response efforts and provide recommendations for response measures going forward." It also said it had already been working closely with the South Korean health ministry on efforts to contain the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the country.

The WHO identified no significant evidence of "sustained human-to-human transmission," meaning it saw no need to impose travel restrictions.

Also on Friday, the health ministry in Seoul announced that a fourth person - a 76-year-old man - had succumbed to MERS. A total of 41 people are known to have been affected in South Korea, and around 2,000 are either in quarantine or medical observation.

MERS hospital identified

The health ministry has come in for widespread criticism over its at least initial lack of transparency about what is the biggest outbreak of the ailment outside of the Middle East. On Friday, the ministry relented by identifying the hospital in Pyeongtaek, 65 kilometers (40 miles) southwest of Seoul, where the first man diagnosed with MERS in South Korea was treated. The 68-year-old man had recently returned from a business trip to the Middle East.

Health Minister Moon Hyong-pyo on Friday also apologized for the public anxiety caused by the outbreak, while at the same time rejecting criticism from Seoul's mayor in particular, who has been among the most vocal about the ministry's perceived lack of transparency.

MERS doctor concerns

Much concern has been caused by the news that a doctor who had treated a MERS patient before attending a gathering involving more than 1,500 people. The doctor subsequently tested positive for MERS.

MERS is a regarded as a deadlier but less infectious cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed around 800 people worldwide - mostly in Asia, after it emerged in 2002-2003.

According to WHO figures, the 41 new cases in South Korea brings the global total to almost 1,200 since it emerged in the Middle East in 2012. So far MERS has resulted in than 440 fatalities, mainly in the Middle East - giving it a death rate of around 38 percent.

pfd/msh (dpa, Reuters, AFP)