Joint team faults gov’t information handling

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Joint team faults gov’t information handling

One of the big reasons for Korea’s Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak growing so fast and far is that the government failed to act swiftly on the release of information, a joint mission by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare said at the government complex in Sejong City on Saturday.

Although co-leader of the mission Lee Jong-koo, director of the Center for Global Medicine at Seoul National University, did not detail what information the government should have revealed more quickly, he said it failed to respond to the risk properly.

Regional governments also failed to anticipate the MERS outbreak, which prompted public disorder, added Lee.

In a press conference following a weeklong on-site review, the mission said it found “no evidence” to indicate there are ongoing transmissions in the community at large. The outbreak is showing an “epidemiologic pattern,” also seen in the Middle East, of the outbreaks occurring in hospitals, said Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security of the WHO.

“More cases should be anticipated,” said Fukuda, who co-led the mission with Lee.

As to the key question of a single infected traveler infecting a growing chain of people in a relatively short time, the team pointed to the country’s overall culture concerning medical facilities and physicians’ lack of knowledge about the MERS coronavirus infection.

It was “unlikely for the doctors to suspect or investigate MERS infection as the potential cause of infection when they would see a respiratory disease,” said Fukuda.

But control measures were not optimal in some local hospitals, he admitted.

He also blamed “overcrowding in emergency rooms and having many patients in a single [hospital] room.”

He added that “particular habits and customs” may have fuelled the spread of infections, like Koreans’ practice of seeking care at many different medical facilities, also known as “doctor shopping.”

Another factor that has been commonly mentioned is the Korean custom of having many friends and family members visiting hospitalized patients, often staying overnight to care for them.

Lee mentioned that the current pace of case increases “appears to be stagnating or decelerating,” which illustrates that control measures are beginning to prove effective.

The mission said through a press release issued the same day that “strong consideration” should be given to reopening schools.

“Schools have not been linked to transmission of MERS-CoV in the Republic of Korea or elsewhere,” the distribution read.

Lee, however, distanced himself from making any clear-cut conclusions from the investigation, saying that was “rather risky.” The mission acknowledged it was “unable” to conclude whether environmental contamination, inadequate ventilation or other factors played a role in the transmission of the virus.

“We still have to wait and see how the outbreak unfolds for at least the coming several weeks to understand the impact on Korean society,” said Lee.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education announced Sunday that most of the 2,900 schools that were temporarily closed on Friday will reopen on Monday, bringing down establishments with canceled classes to less than 100.

Education authorities discussed countermeasures for schools over the weekend and decided to sanitize all areas.

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

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