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Think scientifically

As the number of Koreans infected with Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) through a fourth-generation of contagion reaches six, medical experts express concern about a possible prolongation of the potentially fatal illness. Patient No. 137, a medical aide at Samsung Medical Center, came into contact with more than 300 people without being quarantined even after he began to show symptoms. And Patient No. 143, who was infected while working at a hospital in Daejeon, came in contact with over 700 people in Busan. Both cases suggest a possibility of a massive MERS proliferation. If the patients they had contact with move to other areas without being aware of their infection, it will rapidly spread to local communities beyond control.

As of Monday, 150 people have been diagnosed with MERS and over 5,000 people are quarantined. If the number of patients goes up, our hospitals’ ability to accommodate them could face limits.

A prolongation of the MERS outbreak could wreak havoc on our economy. Choi Kyung-hwan, deputy prime minister for the economy and finance minister, said that if the crisis is protracted, it could raise risks for our economy. The Korea Economic Research Institute forecast that our GDP will suffer a loss of 20.9 trillion won ($18.7 billion) if MERS continues to spread until the end of August. If the outbreak lasts for three months, the think tank warns, more than 20,000 people will have to be quarantined and the number of patients could increase to 646, which would likely have a huge impact on our production, consumption and exports.

The government must first calm people’s anxiety. Public health authorities, the medical sector and all citizens must deal with MERS based on scientific facts. In fact, MERS cases in Korea are quite dissimilar from those in the Middle East. Despite the conventional wisdom that most of the patients are older than 50, more than a third were less than 50 years old in Korea. The secondary transmission of MERS at Samsung Medical Center also hints at a possibility of infection without close contact with patients. In other words, if the virus is highly contagious, it could even spread through the air.

And even if patients with underlying conditions are particularly vulnerable to dying, two people died of MERS without underlying conditions. This means that even healthy, young people are at risk, although our fatality rate of 9.3 percent shows this outbreak is not as fatal as the one in the Middle East.

It is time to maintain composure. The government must devise measures to support our medical staffs. We can overcome the crisis only when the government and civilian sectors cooperate.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 16, Page 30

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