Seoul taking steps to defend against Ebola virus

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Seoul taking steps to defend against Ebola virus

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African students at the World Congress of Global Partnership for Young Women 2014 wait for the start of the international conference at the Lotte Hotel Seoul yesterday. By Kim Hyung-soo

The government announced measures yesterday to track all arrivals from three West African countries affected by the deadly Ebola virus. The World Health Organization says the hemorrhagic fever has killed more than 800 people and fears are rising that the viral infection could arrive here.

All travelers from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia into South Korea will be screened by thermal-imaging cameras at international airports and questioned by doctors about suspicious symptoms.

They will then be tracked for three weeks after their entry, the maximum length of time between an infection and the appearance of symptoms. Yang Byung-Guk, director of the Korea Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), announced the new measures at a briefing yesterday.

Also yesterday, officials convened an emergency meeting of the Health Ministry, the Family Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the KCDC to decide on quarantine and preventive measures against the virus amid concerns that the illness could develop into a global pandemic.

According to the World Health Organization, as of July 30, the total number of confirmed cases of the virus stood at 1,437 in the three African countries, and three suspicious cases were found in Nigeria as well. The total death toll in this latest outbreak of the disease rose to 825.

Unlike air-borne viruses, Ebola is transmitted through direct contact of bodily fluids such as blood, saliva or urine. During the incubation period, the virus cannot be spread to others. There is no approved vaccine or treatment for the illness other than support for impaired bodily functions, according to WHO.

Despite the death toll to date in Africa, Yang said the government believes that the possibility for the Ebola virus to evolve into a global pandemic disease is low.

“Although the fatality rate of the Ebola virus is 20 percent to 90 percent, it is not highly contagious, unlike the influenza in 2009 [H1NI],” he said.

“We will distribute the list of all travelers from the three countries to local health officials in order to trace them for 21 days after their arrival,” Choe Yeon-hwa, an official from the KCDC, told the Korea JoongAng Daily by telephone. “The officials will call them every day to ask whether they have any suspicious symptoms.”

As of yesterday, a total of 21 people have come from the three affected countries recently; 13 of them have passed the 21-day mark here, according to the center.

The government will not block a traveler from entering the country if he or she does not show symptoms at the airport.

“There is no country in the world that would block people from one of the three countries if they show no symptoms,” said Yang, the KCDC director, at the briefing. “All travelers from those countries were first quarantined by local authorities when they departed from those countries.”

According to the Health Ministry, the government has arranged 544 beds at 17 designated hospitals in the country if the virus is found here.

There is no legal measure the government can take to ban Koreans from traveling to the countries where the outbreak is going on.

The KCDC says 158 Korean nationals are currently staying in the three countries, and they are under the control of local authorities.

Despite the government’s announcement, groups preparing for international events in Korea are struggling with public anxiety over the disease.

Officials preparing for the International Congress for Mathematics, a large conference scheduled to begin Aug. 13 with about 5,000 mathematicians from 130 countries in attendance, held an emergency meeting yesterday in response to public anxiety over their African guests.

According to the officials, there is one participant from Guinea, which is one of three affected countries.

“We are discussing the matter with the Foreign Ministry,” an official in charge of the conference told the Korea JoongAng Daily by phone. “We will take responsible measures to relieve public concern over the event.”

Another international conference, hosted by Duksung Women’s University, began yesterday as scheduled, despite a controversy about the participation of people from unaffected countries in Africa.

“We confirmed that there is a total of 33 students from Africa attending the World Congress of Global Partnership for Young Women 2014 sponsored by Duksung Women’s University,” the KCDC’s Yang said. “All of them came from countries other than the three [involved in the outbreak]. We don’t think we should ban the entry of the students only because they came from Africa.”

Several South Korean lawmakers have already cancelled or are planning to withdraw from business trips to Africa.

National Assembly Speaker Chung Ui-hwa yesterday scrapped his official tour to Africa, including South Africa and Angola, scheduled for Aug. 16.

Five members of the Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee are also thinking about rescheduling a trip to Tunisia and Algeria, set for Aug. 22-Sept. 3, for an inspection of South Korean companies abroad.

“Although the two countries are far from the regions infected with Ebola virus, we have to change the schedule for the visit,” an official at the committee told the JoongAng Ilbo. “Through negotiations between the ruling and opposition parties, we will probably take steps to postpone or cancel the trip.”

BY KIM HEE-JIN [heejin@joongang.co.kr]






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