TIME Thailand

First Case of MERS Confirmed in Thailand, 59 People Remain Under Observation

Thai Airways (THAI)  implements preventive measures
Pacific Press—LightRocket via Getty Images Thai Airways (THAI) implements preventive measures regarding the MERS virus on THAI flights within affected areas; Thai officers spray disinfectant on passenger seats aboard a Thai Airways Airbus A330-300 at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok

Thai Health Ministry officials took four days to verify the case

Thailand announced its first case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, on Friday after a 75-year-old businessman from Oman was diagnosed at a hospital near Bangkok.

According to Reuters, the unnamed man first arrived in the Southeast Asian nation on Monday to seek medical treatment for a heart problem at a private hospital.

Thai Health Ministry officials said it took them four days to verify the case, raising concerns that the deadly virus may have spread in the interim, Reuters reports.

A total of 59 people are being monitored for symptoms after coming into contact with the infected man, who is now being held in quarantine at an infectious-disease clinic. Thai Public Health Minister Rajata Rajatanavin told Reuters that three of those under observation have already been hospitalized.

The announcement comes as South Korea’s MERS outbreak appears to be stabilizing. Twenty-four people have died from the virus in the East Asian country, while a total 166 people have been infected.

Thai businesses have already been affected by the latest case, according to Reuters, with shares in the operator Airports of Thailand dropping 4.2% to their lowest value in three weeks.

[Reuters]

 

TIME public health

#theBrief: Why Isn’t There a Vaccine for the MERS Virus?

A treatment for MERS just isn't profitable

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome—MERS—has infected at least 165 people and has killed at least 23 in South Korea, but there still isn’t a vaccine to prevent or treat it.

And there might not be for a very long time.

MERS is a virus similar to SARS, and easily confused with the flu or common cold. It’s also highly contagious.The disease was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and since then, has shown up in 25 different countries.

But a vaccine could be a long way off. Watch the Brief to find out the three key reasons why.

TIME South Korea

Here’s the One Piece of Good News if You Travel to South Korea and End Up Getting MERS

Struggles To Contain MERS Continue In South Korea
Chung Sung-Jun —Getty Images Disinfection workers wearing protective clothing spray anti-septic solution in a karaoke parlor on June 16, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea.

The government will pick up your medical bills

South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced this week that free insurance would be offered to foreign tourists to cover their medical expenses if they contract Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), while visiting the country.

The ministry also announced plans to stock tourist sites with sterilizing products and open a call center to cater to MERS-related inquiries from foreigners.

“We hope the measures will make foreign tourists feel that Korea is still a safe country to visit,” Vice Minister Kim Jong told reporters earlier this week, according to the Korea Times.

Approximately 100,000 foreign tourists have axed scheduled trips to the country since early June, reports Agence France-Presse.

The news comes as authorities announced that another individual diagnosed with MERS died on Wednesday morning, which ups the nationwide toll to 20.

However, the country’s Ministry of Health and Welfare says that 90% of the deaths attributed to the current outbreak have occurred with patients who already had pre-existing medical conditions, reports South Korean news agency Yonhap.

To date, 124 patients diagnosed with MERS remain in hospital in South Korea, while an additional 6,500 people have been quarantined since the outbreak first began spreading across the country on May 20.

TIME Infectious Disease

South Korea’s Latest Fashion Accessory: Face Masks

Residents of the country’s densely packed capital are relying on face masks for protection. But how effective are they?

It may be more psychological than logical. Everyone from school children to the nation’s famously fashion-forward teens are covering up in the face of MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a coronavirus that aims straight for the lungs and makes breathing a challenge. The culprit? Virus particles that spread between people who are in close contact, presumably from saliva and secretions that are released when people cough or sneeze.

Most cases, including the 154 reported so far in South Korea, are spread from infected patients in hospitals to health care personnel or close caregivers. But that hasn’t stopped Korean residents from buying out the supply of face masks in the capital city of Seoul, where the first patient sough medical care after becoming ill.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health care personnel or others who come in contact with MERS patients should wear something called an N-95 respirator, which has a disposable, fitted facepiece filter that can prevent users from breathing in droplets that may contain the virus.

Paper face masks, which fit loosely over the face, can also block large droplets or splatter but can’t completely prevent someone from inhaling viruses, especially if they are in close contact with an infected person for a relatively long time. Public areas in South Korea aren’t particularly high-risk locales, but the idea that some barrier is better than no barrier is likely driving the sales of these masks, some of which come adorned with popular cartoon characters and other logos. It’s also an extension of the Asian habit of donning masks when you’re sick—not so much to protect yourself from getting infected with something, but to prevent you from infecting others.

Read next: This Photo Symbolizes Just How Much MERS Is Taking Over South Korea

TIME South Korea

The MERS Outbreak Has Claimed Its 16th Victim in South Korea

The World Health Organization will hold emergency talks later this week to address the "large and complex" outbreak

South Korean public-health officials confirmed that another individual diagnosed with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome died on Monday morning, raising the ongoing outbreak’s death toll to 16.

The country’s latest MERS victim was a 58-year-old male patient who succumbed to the respiratory virus while being treated at a local hospital, reports South Korean news agency Yonhap.

According to official statistics, 150 people have now been diagnosed with the potentially fatal disease. At least 17 of them are said to be in “unstable condition.”

Authorities have placed more than 5,200 people nationwide under isolation to impede the transmission of the virus. Officials said thousands more may be quarantined in the coming days.

Over the weekend, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced plans to hold emergency talks on Tuesday to address the contagion. The WHO described the outbreak as both “large and complex” and warned that the virus would most likely continue to spread. However, officials said the disease does not appear to have mutated.

“We know that there has been much anxiety about whether the virus in the Republic of Korea has increased its ability to transmit itself between humans,” said Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director general for health security, in a statement released on Saturday.

“However, based on available sequencing studies of this virus, it does not appear to have changed to make itself more transmissible.”

In a small slice of good news, thousands of schools across South Korea were set to reopen their doors this week after being shuttered earlier this month, reports Reuters. At least 440 schools will remain closed.

On Monday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye called on her fellow citizens and industry leaders to return to business as usual to prevent the country’s economy from taking a further battering.

“I ask the business community, too, to continue to go on with investment, production and management activities as normal and particularly help with ensuring that consumers don’t hold back from spending money,” said Park.

The four-week-old outbreak first began spreading across South Korea when a 68-year-old man was diagnosed with the virus on May 20 after returning from a trip to the Middle East.

TIME South Korea

South Korea Reports 13th Death From MERS Outbreak

South Korean Health Ministry reported about 3,680 people were still isolated on Friday

(SEOUL, South Korea)—Authorities in South Korea temporarily closed two hospitals amid persistent fears over the MERS virus outbreak, which has killed 13 people through Friday, though health officials said they are seeing fewer new infections.

More than 120 people in South Korea have been diagnosed with Middle East respiratory syndrome since the country reported its first case last month. The outbreak, the largest outside Saudi Arabia, has been occurring only in hospitals, among patients, family members who visited them and medical staff treating them. Still, it has caused widespread fears and rumors, and about 2,900 schools and kindergartens remained closed Friday.

South Korean officials have hoped the disease would begin to ease since the virus’ maximum two-week incubation period for those infected at a Seoul hospital considered as the main source of the outbreak ended Friday. However, several hospitals have treated MERS patients, and the later incubation periods for them is raising worries of possible new sources of infections.

Mediheal Hospital in western Seoul and Changwon SK Hospital in the southern city of Changwon were ordered to temporarily shut down after MERS patients were found to have had contact with hundreds of people there before they were diagnosed, according to officials at Seoul and Changwon.

There are currently no MERS patients at the two hospitals, but dozens of medical staff and existing patients are quarantined at the facilities. Mediheal is to reopen on June 23, and Changwon SK on June 24, city officials said.

Central government officials say there is little chance of the virus spreading from those hospitals because they are quarantining people who had contacts with infected people and monitoring them.

“We see no danger of an additional spread,” Jeong Eun-kyeong, a senior official from the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told a news conference. She said only a small number of new infections could still be reported from those hospitals.

Some experts have said the outbreak could continue if there are a large number of infected people who evaded government quarantine measures and spread the virus.

The Health Ministry reported just four new cases on Friday, after registering 14 Thursday and 13 on Wednesday. About 3,680 people were still isolated on Friday after possible contacts with infected people, a decline from more than 3,800 on Thursday, according to the ministry.

Senior ministry official Kwon Deok-cheol told the news conference that the public should stop worrying too much about the outbreak as the number of new cases has been falling.

Most of the deaths have been of people suffering from pre-existing medical conditions, such as respiratory problems or cancer.

Three MERS patients in their 70s died on Friday, raising the country’s number of MERS-related deaths to 13. The three had suffered from conditions such as pneumonia, asthma, lung diseases and high-blood pressure before they were confirmed as having MERS, the Health Ministry said.

Experts think MERS can spread in respiratory droplets, such as by coughing. But transmissions have mainly occurred through close contact, such as living with or caring for an infected person.

MERS has a death rate of about 40 percent among reported cases. It belongs to the family of coronaviruses that includes the common cold and SARS, and can cause fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure.

TIME South Korea

Bank of Korea Cuts Key Interest Rate to Stave Off Economic Fallout From MERS

The death toll rose to nine on Wednesday

In an effort to stave off economic troubles caused by panic over the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak, South Korea’s central bank lowered its seven-day repurchase rate to an unprecedented 1.5% Thursday, the fourth such reduction in 10 months, Bloomberg reports.

Authorities meanwhile announced that more people had died of the respiratory ailment, bringing the death toll to 10. The total infections now stand at 122, according to the Wall Street Journal.

As many as 3,000 people have been quarantined to date, and economists fear that a bleak mood will deaden any upward momentum the country’s already embattled economy might have been gaining.

This is the second straight year that the country has faced sudden threats to consumer sentiment, after last year’s sinking of the Sewol ferry also traumatized both the country’s people and its markets. Similarly, experts fear that worries over MERS could freeze domestic consumption, adding further troubles on top of the country’s plummeting exports, which fell 10% last year.

Public approval for President Park Geun-hye meanwhile dropped six percentage points in the past week, according to a Gallup Korea poll, suggesting that South Koreans were unhappy with Park’s handling of the crisis. She postponed a trip to the U.S. planned for next week and asked her Cabinet to execute “all preemptive measures” that might minimize the effect of MERS on the economy.

To date, all South Korean MERS casualties have been older than 55; all also had underlying medical conditions such as asthma, heart disease, and cancer. Still, this is the most extensive outbreak of MERS since the syndrome was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

[WSJ, Bloomberg]

TIME South Korea

This Photo Symbolizes Just How Much MERS Is Taking Over South Korea

South Korea MERS Wedding
Sewing for the Soil/AFP/Getty Images A young South Korean couple and dozens of guests standing together for a group photo in Seoul on June 6, 2015. The young South Korean couple became an unexpected symbol of the MERS health scare sweeping the nation after a different photo of the same group showing the couple and guests jokingly posed wearing surgical masks went viral.

MERS has killed nine people and left more than 2,800 quarantined in South Korea

A photo of South Korean wedding attendees wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) went viral this week. It turns out the photo was a joke, but it remains a symbol of how much fear of the disease has grown.

The photo, which was taken at a wedding on Saturday in Seoul, spread quickly on social media. A wedding planner told the Agence France-Press that the attendees had spent the duration of the ceremony without masks, and they never wanted the posed mask photo to be taken seriously.

MERS, which has no known cure, has killed nine people and left more than 2,800 quarantined in South Korea.

Read next: Here’s the Difference Between MERS and Ebola

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Science

A Nobel Scientist Just Made a Breathtakingly Sexist Speech at International Conference

Tim Hunt Nobel prize winner
Csaba Segesvari—AFP/Getty Images English biochemist, the Nobel-prize winner Sir Richard Timothy 'Tim' Hunt in Hungary in 2012.

Tim Hunt complained that female scientists "cry" and make male colleagues fall in love with them

Renowned scientist and Nobel prize winner Tim Hunt told a room full of high-ranking scientists and science journalists Wednesday that the trouble with “girls” working in science is that “three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.”

Hunt, who was speaking at the World Conference of Science Journalists in the South Korean capital, Seoul, went on to say that scientists should work in gender-segregated labs, adding that he hoped not “to stand in the way of women,” the Guardian reports.

Hunt, 72, won the 2001 Nobel prize in physiology and medicine for his work on protein molecules and their role in cell division. He was knighted in 2006.

The Royal Society, of which Hunt is a fellow, quickly tweeted a message distancing itself from Hunt’s remarks, writing that the comments “don’t reflect our views” and later adding, “Science needs women.”

Hunt later tried to apologize on BBC Radio 4’s Today:

I’m really sorry that I said what I said. It was a very stupid thing to do in presence of all those journalists. And what was intended was a sort of light-hearted, ironic comment … was apparently interpreted deadly seriously by my audience. But what I said was quite accurately reported.

It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them. If they break in to tears then you hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing except getting at the truth. And anything (that) gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.

I mean I’m really, really sorry that I caused any offense. That’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean … I just meant to be honest actually.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Twitter responded with outrage. Sabine Dittrich, an infectious-disease researcher based in Laos, wrote:

Lynn Schreiber, who runs a “girl-positive” online magazine, said:

And mechanical-engineering Ph.D. student Aaron Mifflin added:

The ratio of women to men in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) careers has remained persistently low despite initiatives around the world promoting science education for young girls. Women hold only 25% of American STEM jobs, according to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

[Guardian]

TIME South Korea

Hundreds More Under Quarantine in South Korea as MERS Claims Seventh Victim

Eight new cases have been diagnosed, but officials are optimistic that the virus is being contained

South Korea authorities confirmed the death of another person diagnosed with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) on Tuesday, raising the toll from the outbreak to seven.

The latest victim was a 68-year-old woman who had previously suffered from chronic heart conditions before contracting the respiratory virus, according to the state news agency Yonhap.

Public health officials have been working frantically to contain the virus’s spread since the outbreak began on May 20. On Tuesday morning, authorities said that eight new cases of the virus had been diagnosed, raising the number of infections across the country to 95.

Over 2,800 people have been quarantined — up from 2,300 reported Monday — and more than 1,800 schools closed in an effort to halt the spread of the contagion.

However, health officials say progress is being made against the outbreak because infections have only been recorded at hospitals where a MERS patient has been treated, or which has been visited by somebody with MERS. So far, the disease has not emerged in the community at large.

“This week may be very crucial to overcoming MERS,” Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan told a meeting of top officials this week, reports Yonhap.

Public-health experts appear to concur that the risk of a rapidly spreading pandemic is low.

“The chance of a massive outbreak in South Korea is not high,” Ho Pak-leung, a microbiology expert at the University of Hong Kong, told Agence France-Presse. “Rather I think there will be continued transmissions at a low level.”

Despite the official optimism, governments across the globe asked their fellow citizens to exercise caution when traveling to the country.

Hong Kong, which experienced its own battle with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2003 that claimed around 775 lives worldwide — 299 of them in Hong Kong — issued an official travel notice on Tuesday, advising its residents against “nonessential travel” to South Korea.

The city’s decree follows the issuing last week of a Level 1 travel advisory for South Korea made by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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