It’s not the hospitals’ faultThe health authorities predicted that the first week of June would be the turning point for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), expecting that the rapid increase of patients would slow down and that the situation would become controllable.
Differing from the hopes of the government and the people, however, the number of confirmed patients infected at Samsung Medical Center’s emergency room in Seoul have continued to grow.
Furthermore, the outbreak has spread from the southern Gyeonggi and Seoul areas to other parts of the country, worsening concerns.
The number of people quarantined is expected to hit 5,000 this week. Managing as well as treating patients has become an important issue.
On the other hand, there seemed to be no more infections from Pyeongtaek St. Mary’s Hospital, where the first patient was admitted. There is also the hope-filled news that an infected patient has been cured and released from hospital.
The respiratory infection was first reported three years ago. The origins of the disease are thought to have come from bats, although they were first found in camels, which had developed antibodies against it. It is transmitted between people through nasal discharge, sneezing and coughs.
The virus is not infectious during the latent period when no symptoms are shown. High fever, coughing, difficulty in breathing, muscle aches, diarrhea, vomiting and stomachaches are the symptoms. It takes an average of 5.5 days from infection to when symptoms are shown. There are some patients who show no symptoms, but in some severe cases, the patients can die from pneumonia, renal failure or blood poisoning.
In order to overcome this crisis as soon as possible, we have to look back on the shortcomings. Only then, we can come up with proper countermeasures.
First, the government and the medical authorities have failed to effectively quarantine Patient No. 1, and subsequently Patients No. 14 and 16, who were infected by him. Therefore, a massive third-generation infection took place.
Taking that into account, a thorough quarantine measure to separate patients and suspected patients from the public are a must. To this end, medical authorities must share information on not only the confirmed patients but also suspected patients. We must prevent another rapid spread of infections due to the failure to share patient information and to take proper quarantine measures.
Second, it is a problem that the standard of close contact, used to define the suspected patients and quarantine subjects, was limited to a radius of 2 meters (6.56 feet). Due to this, many confirmed patients had not been identified as having close contact with the virus at the early stage, and the outbreak was fueled.
Because the tests and quarantines were delayed, massive infections took place. As the number of infected snowballed and the disease spread to patients in other wards and hospitals, controversy about a possible airborne infection started.
Anyone who came into contact with the patient within the two-meter radius without using proper protective gear as well as those who stayed in the same wards and the same spaces must be quarantined and monitored. Furthermore, those under self-quarantine measures at home must be managed so they won’t act outside the guidelines and cause infections among family members.
Third, it was already predicted that some medical institutions would fail to manage MERS. Blaming a private medical institution cannot be a resolution. Until now, medical institutions have had no serious problems preventing infections from spreading on their own, but it is clear that they cannot take initiative in preventing new types of infectious diseases.
Building and managing negative pressure isolation rooms requires enormous expenses. That is an area of public health, so public health offices must take control of this while the government establishes a public medical system such as a specialized hospital for infectious diseases.
In order to end the MERS outbreak as soon as possible, the government, medical community and the public must unite and overcome this crisis. Based on the basic principles of crisis management communication of new infectious diseases, the government must admit to the people’s fear and provide detailed explanations on how it will prevent it. Although it is belated, the shortcomings revealed from the government’s initial countermeasures must accurately analyze and improved as soon as possible.
Many Korean people are traveling outside the country, while many foreigners are visiting Korea. The transmission of diseases has become globalized. The country must increase its investment in infectious disease control and improve public awareness, or else we will face more similar crises in the future. In order to resolve this issue, we must find a starting point by normalizing the public health medical system for infectious diseases.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff. JoongAng Ilbo, June 12, Page 29
*The author is the president of the Korean Medical Association.
by Choo Moo-jin