Scientists have revealed that a “super spreader” patient in a busy hospital emergency department spread Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) to 82 people in just three days during a big outbreak of the virus in South Korea.

The single businessman who acquired the virus abroad, spread the disease rapidly from person to person. 186 got infected 36 died and thousands others were quarantined — leaving huge swaths of the South Korean capital region, where 25 million people live, paralyzed with fear.

According to researchers whose findings were published in The Lancet medical journal on Friday, those infected included patients, visitors and health workers, and the situation was made worse by overcrowding.

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First identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, MERS has since made its way around the world and infected people in 27 countries.

The illness is severe, with patients developing fever, cough and respiratory distress.

The death rate is believed to be more than 30 percent. It is caused by a coronavirus from the same family as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

Between May and July 2015, there was a MERS outbreak in South Korea when 186 cases were confirmed within two months.

MERS super spreader

Researchers analyzed in detail the outbreak and revealed that; the “index patient”, or Patient 1, was a 68-year-old man who had been to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar from April 18 to May 3 before returning to South Korea.

He first visited the Samsung Medical Center, a large hospital with an emergency room that sees more than 200 patients a day, on May 17. He was isolated the following day with suspected MERS and finally diagnosed with MERS on May 20.

But before arriving at the Center, Patient 1 had already transmitted the virus to several people in other hospitals, including a 35-year-old man – Patient 14 – with whom he had shared a ward.

Patient 14 was then admitted to the Samsung Medical Center with no knowledge of possible exposure to MERS on May 27 – and it was this patient who led to the outbreak at Samsung.

In a retrospective investigation, including a review of closed-circuit video and medical records, the researchers estimated 1,576 people were exposed to Patient 14 in the emergency room. Of these, 33 patients, eight staff and 41 visitors were infected from May 27 to 29.

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The researchers said, the study shows the potential for outbreaks of MERS from a single spreader, and should serve as a warning that as long as the virus is circulating in the Middle East, governments and healthcare providers should be prepared.


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