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Why MERS spread so far, so fast in South Korea

Tourists wearing masks as a precaution against the Middle East respiratory syndrome virus shop in central Seoul on June 11, 2015. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

The MERS scare in South Korea has alarmed health officials around the world for the speed with which the virus is moving from patient to patient. Some scientists in the infectious-disease field fear that certain populations might be genetically susceptible to the virus or, worse, that it had somehow mutated to a more virulent form.

This week, the World Health Organization took its first crack at explaining what it thinks happened in South Korea, and the findings are somewhat comforting.

The WHO says that each of the 15 deaths and 150 cases of infections in the country were linked to a man who had been traveling in the Middle East and was diagnosed and isolated on May 20. Most of the others who were infected got MERS from being in the health-care facilities where he was treated, and there is "no known spillover into the general population," the WHO said.

The reason for the "superspreading event," as scientists are calling it, may have had more to do with conditions and cultural traditions specific to South Korea than any other reason. The WHO says that the "accessibility and affordability of health care in Korea encourage 'doctor shopping'; patients frequently consult specialists in several facilities before deciding on a first-choice facility."

The report added in South Korea, family members and friends tend to be expected to visit their loved ones when they are sick. "It is also customary for family members to provide almost constant bedside care often staying in the hospital room overnight, increasing the risk of close exposures in the health care setting," the report stated.

What you need to know about MERS. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

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