Mers Outbreak in Asia
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Mers Outbreak in Asia

A deadly Mers outbreak has been reported in South Korea claiming several lives. Though cases have been confirmed in 25 countries in the Middle East, Europe and Asia, two new countries joined the list in May 2015: China and South Korea. A total of 122 cases have been reported in South Korea, which is the largest outside Saudi Arabia, where it was reported the first time in 2012, and from where the disease gets its name.

Hong Kong and China had earlier been infected by Sars in 2002 and 2003, when 750 people were killed and thousands were affected. Mers is a similar disease, and has infected 1,154 people and killed 434, according to the World Health Organization.

The South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, has postponed a summit with Barack Obama in Washington. Singapore Airlines has also decided to waive cancellation fees for flights to Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Further, as expected by economists, South Korea has reduced its interest rates. The South Korean economy is already in deep waters, and the Mers outbreak has made the country’s economic recovery difficult after appearing to pick up momentum in recent months.

The Aftermath of the Outbreak

  • 9 people have died in South Korea since Mers was first reported.
  • 700 Koreans have been quarantined and asked not to travel.
  • After a public alarm, schools were closed, public events were called off, and tens of thousands of visitors to the country cancelled their travel plans.
  • Hong Kong has also tested 33 people who recently visited South Korea and all have tested negative.

Effect on the Economy

  • The outbreak is bad-timed as South Korea is struggling with its exports.
  • The country’s economy is highly dependent on international trade and it is under pressure to introduce more stimulus measures due to weak global demands of its products.
  • Exports have fallen 10.9% from last year, the second-largest drop so far. The largest drop was 20% in 2009 due to global financial crisis.
  • South Korean households have debt amounting to about 160% of annual disposable income on an average, one of the highest among major economies.
  • South Korea’s central bank, Bank of Korea (BoK), has announced record-low rates after cuts due to the deadly outbreak of Mers. Now, BoK is concerned how it will manage the cheap credit rates with the massive household debt.
  • It has reduced the policy rate by 0.25% points to 1.5%. This is the fourth rate cut by (BoK) in less than a year.
  • The rate cut is also the seventh cut since 2012, when BoK started its easing cycle.
  • The interest rate has been reduced to block the economic fallout in South Korea which is fourth-largest economy of Asia.

What is Mers?

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) is a viral respiratory disease caused by a new type of coronavirus, which includes the common cold and Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome). It was reported for the first time in the Middle East in 2012, and the first death was also reported in the same year in Saudi Arabia. Patients show symptoms of fever, cough and breathing difficulties; however, Mers can also cause pneumonia and kidney failure, and gastrointestinal symptoms including diaerrhoea have also been reported. There is no vaccine or any specific treatment, and almost 36% of the reported cases so far have died. Although the majority of human cases of Mers have been attributed to human-to-human infections, camels are likely to be a major reservoir host of the virus and an animal source of infection to humans. Strains of Mers identical to human strains have been isolated from camels in several countries including Egypt, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Severe illness can cause respiratory failure that requires mechanical ventilation and support in an intensive care unit. The virus causes more severe disease in older or weak people, or those who have chronic diseases such as cancer, chronic lung disease or diabetes. The good thing about the disease is that no community transmission has been documented; the human-to-human transmission occurs only during close contact, such as providing unprotected care to an infected patient.

Viruses that can be transmitted from animals to humans are called zoonotic viruses. Mers is a zoonotic virus; however, its origin is not clear. It is believed that it originated in bats and at some point of time was somehow transmitted to camels. The virus appears to be circulating throughout the Arabian peninsula, and primarily in Saudi Arabia where more than 85% cases have been reported in the last three years.