Dropping the ball on MERS

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Dropping the ball on MERS

Fear about Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is spreading fast. Seven patients are already suffering from the potentially lethal respiratory illness after the first patient was found last week. However, our utterly porous disease management system only deepens the public’s worries about the disease, first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012, which starts off with fever and a cough.

To date, all of the victims had contact or a connection with the first patient, a 68-year-old man who traveled to the Middle East and returned to Korea on May 4, including his relatives, doctors and other patients who were in the same hospital. But on Thursday another patient in the hospital was diagnosed, and his hospital room was 10 meters (33 feet) away from Patient No. 1’s room. Exactly how he contracted the disease is not yet known, but he is the most worrying patient so far.

The health authorities have been very lax in managing patients and people who were exposed to them. For instance, the son of a patient No. 3, who shared a hospital room with Patient No. 1, was able to depart for China on a business trip even after he went to the hospital for a high fever. He visited his father in the hospital but was not classified as a person that needed to be quarantined. The son reported his fever to a health center in his neighborhood, but it did not report it to health agencies. It just advised him to go to a university hospital.

His doctor in the emergency room of the hospital even shied away from immediately reporting the case to government health authorities. The doctor reported it a day after his patient left for China. People responsible for reporting the case to government authorities avoided their obligation and instead helped increase the number of people who need to be quarantined, including the patient’s coworkers, passengers on the same flight to China and medical staff at the hospital.

Although the fatality rate of MERS exceeds 40 percent, there is no vaccine or effective treatment. Yet our health authorities are handling the issue almost absent-mindedly, citing its “low infection rate.” They went so far as to refuse a request for a close medial examination from the daughter of Patient No. 3, who eventually tested positive for the virus four days later and became Patient No. 4.

Medical experts say that if health authorities had conducted an epidemiological investigation at once, the disease could never have spread at this speed. Travelers to areas with a high risk of infection must also voluntarily report their travel activities to health authorities. An effective system must be established to deal with the case after reports. As a new breed of infectious disease is unpredictable and its variants develop fast, health authorities must be on the alert.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 29, Page 34

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