South Korea, home to a deadly outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) that has left 31 dead so far, passed a new law late Thursday that would fine or imprison infected patients who failed to follow anti-infection procedures or lied about how they contracted the virus. The law also gives officials greater power to quarantine sick people or shutter facilities that are infected.
"False testimony would entail up two years in prison or 20 million won [$18,000] in fines," the new law, passed in the National Assembly, mandates, Agence France-Presse reports. "Interviewees will [now] feel compelled to provide honest answers." Those punishments could apply to people who fail to tell the truth to investigators about how they came into contact with the disease.
Presumably, the law would punish those who failed to abide by the country's quarantine and infection-control efforts as it works to curb a viral outbreak that has sparked widespread panic and taken a toll on the country's economy. The mechanism of the law, or how officials could prove a patient was lying about how they contracted the virus, was not immediately clear.
The law also doubles the number of infection-control officials to more than 60, as the country reported two new cases of the virus Friday, both of whom were elderly women. About half of the country's cases have been traced to Samsung Medical Center, in the country's capital of Seoul.
South Korea's outbreak of MERS dates back to May 20, when a 68-year-old man returned to the country after traveling in the Middle East. So far, out of 181 infected, 31 people have died, 81 have recovered, and 69 are still in treatment, AFP reports. South Korea currently has the highest number of MERS cases outside of Saudi Arabia.
The virus, which causes fever, coughing and shortness of breath, kills about 36 percent of the people it infects. It is believed to have originated with camels and is thought to be passed between humans through droplets emitted in a cough or a sneeze, although precisely how it spreads remains poorly understood, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So far, people who have spread the virus to others have done so in places that include hospitals and clinics -- not in communities.