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MERS outbreak in Republic of Korea is 'wake-up call' for highly mobile world - UN health agency

17 June 2015 – The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today declared the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, outbreak that spread from the Middle East to the Republic of Korea does not constitute a 'public health emergency of international concern' but is nonetheless a "wake-up call" for all countries to be prepared for the unanticipated spread of serious infectious diseases.

The Emergency Committee, convened by the WHO Director-General under the International Health Regulations regarding Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in regards to the outbreak in the Republic of Korea also recommended against the application of any travel or trade restrictions and considers screening at points of entry to be unnecessary at this time.

WHO did recommend "raising awareness about MERS and its symptoms among those travelling to and from affected areas" as "good public health practice."

At a press conference in Geneva following the meeting of the Emergency Committee, WHO Assistant Director-General, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, who took part in a joint WHO/Republic of Korea joint mission to look into the MERS outbreak described the current situation as "the largest outbreak that has occurred outside of the Middle East," and as of today, there have been 162 cases of infections in the country, where 19 deaths have been officially reported.

Dr. Fukuda also said more than 6,500 people in the Republic of Korea are being monitored, and to date, 10,000 people have been monitored, which, he noted, are "quite high numbers" that had raised anxiety levels internationally.

He provided a briefing on the "major pieces of information" the Committee heard such as about the virus itself, current risk factors and status of transmissions.

"On the bases of this information and extensive discussion, the Emergency Committee unanimously agreed that the current situation was of concern but that it did not constitute a public health emergency of international concern," Dr. Fukuda said. "This was transmitted to the Director General [Dr. Margaret Chan] and she has agreed with their guidance."

The Committee, however, "expressed its assessment that this outbreak is a wakeup call and that in a highly mobile world, all countries should always be prepared for the unanticipated possibility of outbreaks of this, and other serious infectious diseases."

The Committee noted that there are still many gaps in knowledge regarding the transmission of this virus between people, including the potential role of environmental contamination, poor ventilation and other factors, and indicated that continued research in these areas was critical.

According to WHO, MERS is a viral respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus (MERS-CoV) that was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

Typical MERS symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Pneumonia is common, but not always present. Gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhoea, have also been reported.

Approximately 36 per cent of reported patients with MERS have died. Globally, since September 2012, WHO has been notified of 1,321 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection with MERS-CoV, including at least 466 related deaths.

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