Some face stigma even after making full recovery

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Some face stigma even after making full recovery

Since the beginning of the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) last month, the majority of initially affected patients have gone on to make full recoveries, but now many are experiencing a new kind of ordeal.

As of Tuesday, 54 people had been discharged from the hospital after being cleared of the virus. But some of their homecomings were not entirely positive.

“Other parents are avoiding me like I’m still infectious,” said one woman, a recovered MERS patient who resides in Suwon, Gyeonggi. “They’ve also stigmatized my children, and it makes me feel like I’m suffering more now than from the disease.”

The woman, who asked not to be named for this article, was treated on May 27 at Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, where more than 80 people were exposed to the virus and later confirmed to have MERS.

After an operation in March, she visited the emergency room at Samsung Medical Center for a fever.

She was told to go under quarantine at home on May 31, and subsequently began exhibiting MERS symptoms on June 5. She was confirmed to have the virus the following day and taken to the hospital. It took 11 days total for her to recover and be discharged.

But when she finally got out of the hospital, her neighbors and those in her community were less than welcoming.

After she was confirmed for MERS, her husband and two children quarantined themselves at home and were prohibited from contacting other people. Yet, even they were heckled.

One post on a community website read, “You must reveal your identity yourselves. Don’t you worry about the safety of others, or only your own?”

The local government took a similar stance.

On June 10, Suwon Mayor Yeom Tae-young disclosed the name of the apartment complex where the woman lives, and places she had recently visited, on the city government website.

Information about her family was also made public. Others tracked her down and her real name spread online.

“We disclosed that information for public safety reasons,” a city government official said. “We didn’t mean to disclose her identity. There are 1,300 apartments in the complex, so we didn’t think her identity would be compromised.”

But what made her even more frustrated came a few days later.

“I can’t sleep at night since I received a phone call from the local health care center,” she said on Sunday. “Parents living nearby filed complaints to the city’s education authority and demanded it disclose the names of the schools my children attend. And the education office asked the local health care center to check it out.”

“Stigmatizing medical workers, recovered patients and their family members is evidence of a lack of community spirit,” said Professor Park Hyeong-uk, who teaches humanistic medicine at Dankook University. “It’s the patients who directly endure the pain, but we also need people to be willing to share the burden and resolve problems together.”

To prevent unnecessary concerns regarding recovered or potential patients and their children, the Ministry of Education on Sunday advised families not to stop those children from coming to school.

The ministry added that hagwon, or private cram schools, that did not accept the children of medical workers, recovered patients or potential patients could face punitive measures, including being stripped of their private school licenses.

BY RHEE ESTHER, JUNG JONG-HOON [kim.bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]

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