MERS outbreak: 2,300-plus quarantined; 1,800 schools closed in South Korea

Seoul, South Korea (CNN)Fears of MERS in South Korea are growing by the day, with more than 2,300 people quarantined as the country grapples with the outbreak.

More than 1,800 schools will be closed for several days amid concerns of the spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome. They include at least 1,255 schools in Gyeonggi province, the area outside Seoul where the outbreak started and where a South Korean air force member stationed at a U.S. air base has been isolated with the illness.

Other closed schools are in the Gangnam region, near the Samsung Seoul hospital — the most affected hospital in the city.

In total, 87 people have contracted the virus, and six people have died, according to official numbers.

Potential exposure through doctor

South Korea’s capital has asked more than 1,500 people to self-quarantine because they unknowingly attended a symposium with a doctor who was infected with MERS, Seoul’s mayor said.

Mayor Park Won-soon said all 1,565 people who attended the symposium should stay at home as a precaution to avoid spreading MERS in the unlikely event they contracted it at the meeting.

The mayor said the city is considering measures that would force these people to stay at home, and that officials are trying to determine where else the doctor traveled while he had symptoms.

Kang Shin-myun, Seoul chief of police, said it will enforce quarantine orders for those suspected of having MERS.

“We will deal strongly with anyone who escalates unnecessary sense of public uneasiness,” he said.

Air force member infected

A South Korean air force member stationed at a U.S. air base tested positive for MERS last week and remains in isolation at a military hospital on the base, a South Korean Ministry of National Defense official said.

The sergeant had received treatment for an Achilles’ heel at the same hospital that had the first MERS patient in South Korea, who became sick after visiting four Middle Eastern countries.

There are no other diagnosed cases of MERS on base, according to Osan Air Base. The United States built the base, south of Seoul, during the Korean War.

MERS doesn’t transmit easily

MERS, which surfaced three years ago, is not well-understood. Because the virus is still fairly new, doctors and scientists do not know the exact source or mode of its transmission.

Steps to prevent MERS
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then dispose of the tissue.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid personal contact, such as kissing, or sharing cups or eating utensils, with sick people.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects, such as doorknobs.

Source: CDC

MERS spreads from close contact with an ill person, such as living with or caring for them, according to theU.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The South Korean outbreak had its first case on May 20. The vast majority of the cases are hospital clusters, and the deaths were among people with pre-existing health conditions.

Experts from the World Health Organization who have dealt with MERS are coming to South Korea to assess the pattern of the virus spread and to look at public health response efforts.

5 things to know about MERS

The outbreak in South Korea has been the largest outside Saudi Arabia — where the virus was discovered.

But South Korea is far from alone in the battle. As of Wednesday, 1,179 cases of MERS have been confirmed in 25 countries, WHO said. Two of those cases were in the United States — both were health workers who lived in Saudi Arabia.