Education International
Education International

Korea: 700 schools shut as respiratory virus sweeps across the country

published 8 June 2015 updated 10 June 2015

Hundreds of South Korean schools have closed their doors as public authorities struggle to ease growing panic over an outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome virus.

More than 700 schools, from kindergartens to colleges, have shut in response to public fears over what has become the largest outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) outside Saudi Arabia, where the disease first appeared in 2012. Mers has infected 35 people, killed three and prompted thousands to cancel travel plans.

Growing public concern

In the Korean capital city Seoul, growing public concern has been reflected in the daily increase in the number of commuters wearing face masks. And the anxiety has been exported, as the Korea tourism organisation reported that about 7,000 tourists, mostly from China and Taiwan, had cancelled group trips to South Korea.

More than 1,600 people have now been quarantined in Korea, according to officials. About 160 of those quarantined have been isolated at state medical facilities, but most have been instructed to stay at home and strictly limit contact with other people.

Presidential administration’s response to the outbreak criticised

The administration of President Park Geun-Hye, and health officials in general, have been criticised for responding too slowly to the initial outbreak, and over their response after one infected person went to play golf and another flew to China.

In an emergency meeting with health officials on 3 June, Park called for “utmost efforts” to curb the spread of the virus and ease public fear.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it expected more infections in South Korea, but stressed that there was “no evidence of sustained transmission in the community”. According to the WHO, the virus has a death rate of 27%.

Mers can cause fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure. It has infected 1,167 people globally, with 479 deaths, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. More than 20 countries have been affected, and most cases have been in Saudi Arabia.