How One ‘Super-Spreader’ Caused Nearly Half of MERS Cases in South Korea

WASHINGTON POST — The outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the huge megalopolis of Seoul from May to July last year was among the most chilling examples of how fast infectious diseases can spread in our modern world.

From a single businessman who acquired the virus abroad, the disease jumped rapidly from person to person until 36 were dead, 186 infected and thousands were quarantined — leaving huge swaths of the South Korean capital region, where 25 million people live, paralyzed with fear.

Schools closed, department store sales tanked, and tourist visas were canceled. The economic toll was so severe that the country’s central bank had to cut interest rates.

Now, doctors involved in the care of the first patients have gone back and documented in exacting detail the geography of MERS as it spread in one hospital. In a paper published Friday in the journal the Lancet, Sun Young Cho and colleagues reconstructed the transmission of the virus through a series of maps, tables and diagrams that would have made Michael Crichton shudder.

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.

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