In SARS fight, he leads with brain, mouth

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In SARS fight, he leads with brain, mouth

Ever since SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, became a dreaded disease from Beijing to Bangkok and beyond, one man has been appearing on Korean television and in newspapers almost daily.
He is Dr. Kwon Jun-wook, 38, director of the division of communicable disease control at the Korean National Institute of Health. That makes him an expert on fast-spreading afflictions.
And because of his knowledge, Dr. Kwon has rarely had a good night’s sleep since the outbreak of SARS ― after all, he has had to receive updates on SARS into the wee hours of morning. His agency is in its third month of being on emergency status.
“I feel so guilty about my wife and 10-year-old daughter,” Dr. Kwon says. “I even had to work a full day on Children’s Day. But my family is very understanding. My daughter tells me, ‘Don’t be too stressed out, dad.’”
Even before graduating from Yonsei University’s medical school, Dr. Kwon decided to enter public service. He recalls being deeply moved during his student days after hearing a lecture by Dr. Kim Mun-sik ― who is now director general of the National Institute of Health ― which emphasized public officials’ critical role in national health care.
First stop for Dr. Kwon was a physician’s position at a public health center in Seocheon, South Chungcheon province, in 1989. A cholera epidemic raged in the area back then and the experience taught him how to work nonstop.
In 1992, he joined the National Institute of Health. To learn more about public health management, Dr. Kwon went to the University of Michigan where he earned his doctorate in public health in 1997. The famed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States’ leading health agency, quickly offered him a spot, but he turned it down. “I admired the research environment at the CDC, but I felt there was more to do back home.” He became director of the NIH’s health policy division in March 2002 and last December took the post he now holds.
Dr. Kwon is popular among TV reporters because he rarely makes mistakes. He also knows how to keep his mouth shut. When reporters continually asked him to name the company that a suspected SARS paitent in Seoul worked for, Dr. Kwon refused.


by Chung Cheol-gun

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