South Korean authorities reported Monday that a sixth person has died from Middle East respiratory syndrome. Twenty-three more people have been confirmed to be infected with the virus, raising the total number of infected cases to 87 in the largest MERS outbreak outside the Middle East.
The sixth fatality from the outbreak is an 80-year-old man who tested positive for the virus while he was being treated for pneumonia.
The government, in an "all-out" effort to prevent the spread of the disease, will start tracking the whereabouts of people in quarantine by using mobile phone signals in order to monitor their movement and to make sure they stay where they are. There are approximately 2,300 undiagnosed people in quarantine either in their homes or in hospitals who may have been in contact with a MERS patient.
"Please understand this is an unavoidable measure for the sake of our neighbours and families," deputy prime minister Choi Kyung-hwan said at a news briefing, The Guardian reports. Last month, an infected man broke his quarantine and went to China, where he was diagnosed with MERS.
As fear of the spreading virus swept over the nation, more than 1,200 schools were closed last week in the hope of containing the disease. More schools have closed this week in light of education officials' order on Sunday for them to temporarily stop operations, bringing the total to 1,900.
In spite of fears regarding the outbreak, South Korean authorities have assured the public that all necessary steps are being done to keep the virus from spreading. They also said that the situation can still be controlled.
Acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-Hwan said that all cases of MERS have been hospital-associated so far; there has been no report of infection in other places or communities. Because of this, the acting prime minister is confident that the outbreak can be put under control.
"We're at a stage where MERS can certainly be controlled because all cases in our country are infections in health facilities, not yet having spread community wide," Choi said at a press conference, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Last week, St. Mary's Hospital in South Korea, where the most number of MERS patients were treated, was closed down after investigations revealed that about 75 percent of the total number of infected cases originated in the said hospital. Authorities are now trying to locate everyone who went there within a particular period last month.
After being highly criticized for its lack of transparency in handling the outbreak, the government gave the names of 24 hospitals where infected patients were diagnosed or were treated before their diagnosis so that people who went to those hospitals and were possibly exposed to the virus can observe themselves for symptoms of the disease.
On Friday, fear of the spreading virus increased when the mayor of Seoul announced that a doctor infected with MERS has exposed more than 1,500 people to the virus when he attended a conference at Gaepo-dong.
"The 35th MERS case is a doctor who had contact with the 14th MERS case. He began to show symptoms on May 29th, which got worse on May 30th, although he attended a meeting in Gaepo-dong for a redevelopment project with 1,565 people the same day," the mayor said, according to Reuters.
"A large number of people have been exposed to the transmission of MERS," he added.
The South Korean health minister denied the mayor's allegations and retorted that the mayor "announced [his] opinion unilaterally" and warned that such statements "could increase public concern."
The government has set up a hotline so people can call and report evidences of the spread of the virus in their communities. On Saturday, authorities gave out a public reminder thru text message for people to wash their hands frequently and to make sure that their mouths are covered when coughing to avoid the transmission of the disease.
MERS was first discovered in Saudi Arabia three years ago. The virus belongs to the same family of coronaviruses as that of SARS and the common cold. Although it is less infectious than SARS, it is known to be more deadly, with a mortality rate of 30 to 40 percent.
The virus has an average incubation period of 5 to 6 days. It can be transmitted through close contact with infected persons.