Our MERS warriorsThe National Medical Center in Euljiro, downtown Seoul, does not accept any patients other than those with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) after it was designated the main isolation center to treat infected patients. Staff is stationed to check identities of anyone who enters the building. Isolation camps have been set up in the parking space that takes up the top three floors of the hospital with negative-pressure units, - designed to keep infected air from escaping a room.
The hospital is treating the patient who brought the contagious disease home from a trip to the Middle East in May. Of 12 patients in the hospital, two have died and one - the wife of the first patient - has been released after a full recovery. Four are in critical states. The hospital had to transfer more than 200 of its patients to other medical facilities. It has ceased regular business. Five teams, each with two main doctors, work in rotation around the clock to treat the MERS patients.
All the doctors who specialize in the respiratory system and infectious diseases have been mobilized. It takes an hour for them to put on or take off their protective suits. These health care workers are at the forefront in the war against the outbreak. If infections spread further, the hospital will need extra helping hands from other hospitals.
The government has designated 87 hospitals to accept people with suspected symptoms. Once a case is confirmed, the patient is sent to one of 16 medical centers across the nation for treatment in isolation. But some of the hospitals lack specialists in infectious diseases. Their environments may be unreliable. Some of them do not have negative-pressure isolation units. A hospital in Gangwon province had to order mobile negative pressure shelters and there is a strike at the only MERS hospital in Ulsan
An outbreak in Korea may have been inevitable. The country has neglected building its expertise in preventive medicine and infectious diseases. A state has the duty to protect civilians from epidemics. There is no credible specialist in the field of epidemiology. We survived the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 due to sheer luck. We exposed our vulnerability to communicable diseases during the 2009 flu pandemic. Legislators criticize government officials and health authorities after an outbreak but have been cutting the budget for disease control. We must invest more in epidemiology, treatment equipment and specialists. In the meantime, we thank health care workers who are fighting the war against MERS.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 13, Page 26