A South Korean airman assigned to Osan Air Base in Korea has tested positive for the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome virus, a contagious pathogen that has infected at least 36 people and killed three in the Republic of Korea.
The 51st Fighter Wing public affairs office on Friday issued a release saying the airman, a chief master sergeant in the Republic of Korea Air Force is at home and not showing any symptoms of the respiratory disease.
Roughly 100 of his coworkers and acquaintances also have been asked to stay home to keep the virus from spreading, according to the release.
"The virus spreads through close personal contact, such as caring for a MERS patient or sharing utensils and drink containers," U.S. Air Force Col. Krystal Murphy, commander of the 51st Medical Group, said. "We recommend everyone exercise caution and use good hygiene practices to prevent any further spread of MERS."
According to U.S. Forces Korea officials, operations continue as normal and leadership is monitoring the situation, but they believe the risk of transmission to be low.
No U.S. troops have tested positive and none of the 100 who have asked to stay home are American, added Air Force Capt. Robert Howard, public affairs chief for the 51st Fighter Wing.
Dr. Jody Lanard, a risk communication expert who specializes in disease outbreaks, said MERS is not as contagious as influenza but has sometimes spread to persons rooms away from an infected patient.
"Close personal contact means different things for different diseases," Lanard said. "For Ebola, it means direct contact with bodily fluids. For influenza, it mostly means being near a person who coughs or sneezes. For MERS, the contact doesn't always have to be close or direct; it can even mean visiting down the hall from a MERS patient's hospital room, or coming into contact with a health worker who has treated a MERS patient and not washed their hands.
"That's why it is so important to cast a very wide net when tracing and quarantining MERS contacts," she said.
U.S. troops and their family members have been urged to maintain strict standards for personal hygiene to keep the virus from spreading.
U.S. Forces Korea officials on Wednesday posted guidance on the command's website and through social media channels for staying healthy, to include:
- Washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds;
- Covering noses and mouths while sneezing or coughing and properly disposing tissues;
- Disinfecting surfaces;
- Avoiding close contact with ill individuals, and;
- Avoiding touching one's face with unwashed hands.
Murphy said U.S. Forces Korea is working with South Korean public health officials as well as U.S.-based Defense Department personnel to monitor the situation and help contain the outbreak.
The MERS virus emerged in Saudi Arabia in September 2012 and has been traced to a case in Jordan in April 2012. It is thought to have originated in bats and was transmitted to camels before jumping to humans. Nearly 1,200 people worldwide have been infected by the virus and 436 have died, according to the World Health Organization.
The outbreak in the Republic of Korea began in May when a resident returned to the country after traveling to the Middle East region. In seeking treatment in Korea, the patient visited two out-patient clinics and two hospitals, potentially exposing hundreds to the disease.
Thirty of the 36 cases are linked to one hospital.
On May 29, China reported its first case of MERS; that patient had traveled to China from South Korea and had symptoms at the time of travel.
So far, more than 1,300 people in the Republic of Korea have been quarantined.
About 28,500 U.S. personnel are stationed in Korea.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.