Reining in MERS fear

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Reining in MERS fear

Public fear about Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is spreading fast as the number of patients with the viral illness grew to 15 only 11 days after the first case was report on May 20. The number is the fourth largest following 1,002 in Saudi Arabia, 76 in the United Arab Emirates and 19 in Jordan. Given the usual 15-day incubation period, we can hardly rule out the possibility of more cases in the near future. As the surge of patients - despite the government’s reassurance of “low-level infection” - the public horror is deepening quickly.

The government first must be held accountable for the alarming increase of patients. The run-up to the diagnosis of a salaried man in his 40s as a carrier of the MERS coronavirus explicitly shows the laxity of the disease control system our health authorities have maintained. The employee went to three hospitals in Korea out of fears about his potential infection with the lethal virus after a trip to Bahrain. But those hospitals did not examine his potential infection because “MERS had not been reported in the Middle East country.” While the three hospitals were wasting time figuring out the cause of his high fever and uncontrollable cough, he went to China, and within two days was diagnosed with MERS in a Chinese hospital.

Another case only makes us dumbfounded. Even though a Korean soldier on leave met his mother - a nurse infected with MERS at her hospital - the military and health authorities were not even aware of the fact for a whopping 18 days. The soldier belatedly reported it to the military authority. The two examples vividly show how unprepared our government is for serious health threats.

The public uproar keeps growing over the way the government dealt with the hospital that treated the first Korean patient with MERS. Even as the hospital was shut down after 12 patients there were diagnosed with the illness, health authorities did not disclose the name of the hospital for fear of causing an uproar among other patients and their relatives. However, such secrecy only helps fuel the public distrust and conspiracy. The government needs to prudently consider the idea of making public the name of the hospital.

People also must maintain their composure. They must refrain from propagating ill-intended rumors in cyberspace through SNS platforms. Since the patient in his 40s was diagnosed with MERS, Chinese are increasingly attacking Korea on the Internet. If Koreans join the slander by copying their posts, it only hurts Korea. The government and people must come up with effective ways to fight the illness. We also must have a mature citizenry to recover our status as a global leader in medicine.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 1, Page 30

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