Story highlights

A month ago, South Korean man believed to be "patient zero" walked into hospital

South Korea reports 138 confirmed cases and 14 deaths

Seoul, South Korea CNN —  

The rate of contagion of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome has slowed in South Korea, a health official said Saturday, and may be on its way down. But the outbreak is not completely over.

The outbreak has been “large and complex” and “more cases should be anticipated,” an official told reporters.

Exactly a month ago, a South Korean man walked into a hospital complaining of a cough and fever.

The 68-year-old patient, who had just returned from four Middle Eastern countries, went from facility-to-facility before getting properly diagnosed. He would become “patient zero” of South Korea’s outbreak of MERS, which has so far reported 138 cases.

The outbreak has sparked international concern, shuttered more than 3,000 schools and stalled the country’s economy.

Fourteen people in South Korea have died after contracting MERS; however, all deaths have been among older adults with underlying medical conditions.

Amid weeks of gloomy news, there seems to be gradual signs of easing as officials are mulling the reopening of schools and more people have been released from quarantine after testing negative.

Health officials have said this week is crucial in the battle to contain MERS as many of those in quarantine are near the end of their mandatory isolation period.

A health care worker in a full hazmat suit exits a patient's room at the Seoul Medical Center where eight people with MERS is being treated.
A health care worker in a full hazmat suit exits a patient's room at the Seoul Medical Center where eight people with MERS is being treated.

A global effect

The outbreak in South Korea has had ripples elsewhere around the world.

On Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an advisory, telling American health care providers to watch for MERS symptoms from people coming from South Korea or Middle East countries.

Hong Kong and Macau raised travel alerts asking their residents to avoid unnecessary travel to South Korea. Passengers from South Korea to Hong Kong’s airport are getting temperature checks.

Hong Kong is particularly sensitive to the prospect of an outbreak as it endured hundreds of deaths from the SARS outbreak of 2002-3. But it has not been the only one.

China, which also grappled with SARS, has also taken precautions. The Chinese aviation regulator ordered all airlines traveling to Korea to disinfect the plane more frequently, reported Xinhua.

Also the organizers of the Shanghai Film Festival, which starts Saturday, emailed Korean participants to say they should cancel their trips due to MERS. The email “was only to provide suggestion,” said Yang Xinwei, the festival’s spokeswoman.

The outbreak has also taken a toll on tourism to South Korea and affected industries such as transportation and restaurants in the country.

5 things to know about MERS

Signs of easing

Steps to prevent MERS

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then dispose of the tissue.Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.Avoid personal contact, such as kissing, or sharing cups or eating utensils, with sick people.Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects, such as doorknobs.
  • Source: CDC

While South Korea has grappled with the outbreak for three weeks, there is some hope of containment.

By Friday, 1,249 people had been released from quarantine after they tested negative for MERS. The number of people kept in quarantine has reduced to 3,680, a drop of 125 from the previous day.

And schools may be re-opening next week as the Ministry of Health also said there is a “high possibility” of resuming classes. More than 2,700 schools were shut due to MERS on Friday.

In a press conference, the Seoul School superintendent announced that all schools should make their own decisions whether to remain closed or not.

Earlier this week, the WHO had recommended reopening them since there is no evidence of MERS circulating in schools and only one of over 100 cases has affected a teenager.

An expert team assembled by the World Health Organization is scheduled to hold a news conference Saturday, releasing its assessment of the outbreak and the response in South Korea.

CNN’s Salma Abdelaziz and Kevin Wang contributed to this report from Atlanta. Sol Han contributed to this report from Hong Kong.