WHO says Mers outbreak in South Korea is a wake-up call, but not a global emergency

Employees from a disinfection service company sanitising Gimpo International Airport in Seoul.
Employees from a disinfection service company sanitising Gimpo International Airport in Seoul.PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA/LONDON, June 17 (Reuters) – An outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) in South Korea shows how easily diseases can spread in a connected world, but is not serious enough to warrant travel bans or other global measures, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.  

Members of the United Nations body’s emergency committee agreed unanimously that the outbreak, while worrying, did not qualify as a public health emergency of international concern – a rating that would have triggered a coordinated, worldwide response.

“This outbreak is a wake-up call,” the Geneva-based agency said. “In a highly mobile world, all countries should always be prepared for the unanticipated possibility of outbreaks of this, and other serious infectious diseases.”

It added, however, that there was no current evidence of the disease spreading easily within communities, and there was no need for any international travel or trade restrictions to be put in place to contain its spread.  

The Mers virus, which causes coughing, fever and can lead to fatal pneumonia and kidney failure, has been reported mainly in Saudi Arabia and South Korea, but has also been imported in travellers to at least 25 countries worldwide.  

Mers kills about 38 per cent of those it infects and is caused by a coronavirus from the same family as the one that triggered China’s deadly 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).  

The vast majority of Mers infections and deaths have been in Saudi Arabia, where more than 1,000 people have been infected since 2012, and about 454 have died.  Some 162 people in South Korea have been infected in a Mers outbreak there in the past month – the largest outside Saudi Arabia.

It has been traced to a 68-year-old South Korean man who returned from a business trip to the Middle East in early May.

“One of the things about this (South Korean) outbreak is that it has received a lot of attention and has raised anxiety levels internationally,” the WHO’s assistant director general for health security, Keiji Fukuda, told reporters at a briefing.  

He said the situation highlights the need to strengthen collaboration between health and other key sectors, such as aviation, and to enhance communication processes.