Officials’ silence on disease’s spread adds to public fear, rumors

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Officials’ silence on disease’s spread adds to public fear, rumors

More than two weeks have passed since news about the potentially fatal Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) initially broke here, when the first Korean patient tested positive on May 20.

And the first death was reported on Monday.

The virus, for which no vaccines or cures have yet been developed, is spread primarily from infected people to others through close contact, and some of the infected Korean nationals came into contact with MERS in health care settings.

These revelations prompted a wave of public unease and made people want to take matters into their own hands.

The public’s key argument from day one was for the government to disclose information about the patients’ whereabouts: Where were they, which city, and in which hospital did they contract the disease?

Despite the uproar, officials have still refrained from making any definitive announcements.

Even with continuous requests that the government publish the names of the hospitals at which the MERS patients were treated, Health and Welfare Minister Moon Hyung-pyo has stood firm on his conviction that such information cannot be provided.

Even the names of the four hospitals visited by the country’s first MERS patient have yet to be revealed.

“Most of the [public’s] concerns are groundless,” Moon said earlier this week. “Given that MERS is transmitted through close contact, entirely ditching visits to those hospitals would be too much of an overreaction.”

The statement was in stark contrast to the reaction by American authorities last year, when the U.S. state of Indiana revealed the name and location of the hospital at which its first MERS patient was admitted.

The Indiana State Department of Health told the press at the time that the male patient, a U.S. citizen, was being treated at Community Hospital in Munster, Indiana.

Similarly, when Germany confirmed MERS cases there, it disclosed the names of the cities where the patients were treated, though not the names of the hospitals.

So did the Netherlands.

A poll by Realmeter showed Thursday that 82.6 percent of the 500 people surveyed from across Korea aged 19 or older believed the government was required to disclose the names of the hospitals and cities at which MERS patients are located.

A 32-year-old salaried worker, Jang Yong-jin, agreed with popular sentiment, saying the government’s confidentiality policy was only causing more panic across society.

“The Internet is overloaded with detailed lists of hospitals in which MERS patients are presumed to be,” he said. “I think keeping it in the shadows only brings about weird myths.”

Regarding the unofficial online list of hospitals, the police said Thursday that it is investigating 14 cases concerning rumors over the outbreak.

Gwangju police officers have already booked one individual, surnamed Lee, for uploading a list via social media of the hospitals suspected to be treating MERS patients.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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