By Helen Regan
June 3, 2015

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday that South Korea could expect further cases of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, USA Today reports.

The disease has killed two people since the first case was confirmed on May 20.

According to Reuters, South Korea’s health ministry confirmed five new cases of the virus Wednesday, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 30—the largest outbreak outside of Saudi Arabia.

South Korea has isolated about 750 people after they came into contact with patients infected with the virus, which results in coughing, fever, shortness of breath, and further complications of pneumonia and kidney failure. MERS is caused by a coronavirus and belongs to the same family as the common cold or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which caused a deadly international outbreak in 2003.

The first case in South Korea occurred in a 68-year-old man who had recently traveled to four Middle-Eastern countries. After developing symptoms on May 11, he sought care at two outpatient facilities and two hospitals but was not isolated as he didn’t report his exposure to the virus.

While he was being treated, the man was exposed to a number of medical staff, patients, and hospital visitors.

“Given the number of clinics and hospitals that cared for the index case, further cases can be expected,” said the WHO in a statement.

Coronaviruses such as MERS can spread easily in hospitals, and the risk of transmission becomes greater when people with the illness become sicker and start coughing more, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told U.S.A. Today.

Because MERS is a new disease, (it was first identified in humans in Saudi Arabia in 2012) doctors know very little about it and there is no cure or vaccine. There have been at least 1,170 lab-confirmed cases of the disease worldwide since 2012 and 480 deaths—a mortality rate of 37 percent.

The WHO is hopeful that current investigations underway in South Korea will help further scientists’ understanding of the virus. The organization says the country’s speed at reporting new developments to international authorities has allowed “almost real-time insight into the dynamics of the outbreak.”

[USA Today]

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