Busan fears conference may bring Ebola patients

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Busan fears conference may bring Ebola patients

In the middle of a growing global panic over the spread of Ebola, Busan is about to host an international conference with guests from infected West African nations.

And some residents are scared.

The 2014 International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference at Busan’s Bexco convention center, held between Oct. 20 and Nov. 7, is expected to be attended by more than 3,000 government officials from 193 countries, including 150 ministers and vice ministers.

This could include up to 176 registered participants from countries with Ebola outbreaks, including Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Nigeria and Congo, according to a list provided by the office of opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy lawmaker Rhee Mok-hee.

The majority, 107, are registered from Nigeria, where a small outbreak is under control.

Some Busan residents and lawmakers are protesting the convening of the conference and want it postponed. Others want to block participants from West African countries.

The Ebola outbreak has accounted for more than 4,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. It is contracted through physical contact with blood or other bodily fluids from infected people or animals and has a fatality rate of 70 percent.

“The national and Busan city government have to officially restrict participation of the countries of six West African countries that had Ebola outbreaks,” said NPAD Rep. Cho Kyoung-tae, a three-term lawmaker from Busan, in a statement Sunday. “And if this is not possible, it has to employ its diplomatic skills to postpone the conference.”

He added, “An international conference that can’t guarantee the safety of the people is a reckless gamble while trying to promote [the country’s] national interests.”

The three-week conference of the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union hosted by the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning - the second such conference held in Asia - is expected to see more than 300,0000 visitors, according to its organizers. It will offer special exhibitions, a global ICT conference and a cultural festival.

An official of the ITU conference’s support team said the government has communicated with participants in Ebola-affected countries through unofficial routes and asked them to reconsider their participation.

But, the official added, “Because of international customs, we cannot officially request participants not to attend.”

The Busan Metropolitan Government on Monday announced preventive measures in response to the Busan citizens’ protests. It said it will cooperate with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and will set up a task force and an Ebola situation room to counter any possible spread of the virus.

The city government said it requested on Sept. 30 that participants in the conference from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, all Ebola hotspots, be quarantined before leaving their countries. It said it communicated with the relevant branches of those governments to reconsider their participation on Oct. 2 through informal channels.

“In such a case, the ambassadors in Seoul and other Northeast Asia countries of the respective countries can attend in their steads,” said the Busan government.

But if participants from Ebola-infected countries still wish to attend, the city government said those individuals will be tracked from the time of arriving in the country until the conference ends.

“If the participant’s temperature is over 38 degrees Celsius [100.4 degrees Fahrenheit] upon arrival,” Song Geun-il, chief health official of the Busan city government, said, “they will be transferred to a university hospital before entering Busan.”

Upon arrival in Korea, the participants would be asked to undergo a 20-minute medical exam and will also be checked by a medical assistant each morning who will take their temperatures and inquire about any other symptoms. They will be checked again in the afternoon via telephone.

Bexco, the conference location, will also be installed with five temperature sensors. If anyone displays suspicious symptoms, they will be transported to an isolation ward by workers in protective suits, the city added.

Korea has been criticized for over-reacting to the Ebola scare. In August, Duksung Women’s University blocked three Nigerians from participating in a World Congress of Global Partnership for Young Women following heavy protests by its students and the public.

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]
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