SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Experts from the World Health Organization and South Korea on Wednesday urged the reopening of more than 2,700 schools closed over fears of the deadly MERS virus.
South Korean officials this week said the Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak may have peaked but that the next several days would be crucial to determining whether their efforts to isolate infected patients had stymied the disease. President Park Geun-hye's office announced earlier Wednesday that Park had postponed her planned U.S. visit to focus on dealing with the outbreak.
The outbreak has killed nine people and infected more than 100 in South Korea, but the cases are linked to hospitals and not spreading in the community. Experts think MERS can spread in respiratory droplets, such as by coughing. Transmissions have mainly occurred through close contact, such as living with or caring for an infected person.
Even so, there have been widespread fears and rumors, and more than 2,700 schools remain closed and about 3,440 people are isolated because they have had contact with infected people.
"Strong consideration should be given to reopening schools, as schools have not been linked to transmission of" the MERS virus in South Korea, said a release from the joint WHO-South Korea mission tasked with reviewing the outbreak.
Other South Korean doctors have already described the massive school closures as nonsensical because there has been no evidence of the virus' transmission in the community.
It was not immediately known how many schools would follow the recommendation. But South Korean officials note that Friday is the last day of the virus' maximum two-week incubation period for people infected by a patient considered as the main source of the second round of the MERS outbreak. Officials say the first wave of the outbreak has ended.
But critics say the outbreak will continue if infected people evade government quarantine measures.
MERS has mostly been centered in Saudi Arabia and has a death rate of about 40 percent. It belongs to the family of coronaviruses that includes the common cold and SARS, and can cause fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure.
The South Korean outbreak originated from a 68-year-old man who had traveled to the Middle East before being diagnosed as the country's first MERS patient last month.
This story has been corrected to show that the death toll from MERS in South Korea is nine, not seven.