Revisions are passed to law on infectious diseases

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Revisions are passed to law on infectious diseases

The National Assembly on Thursday night passed revisions to a law that are hoped to raise public awareness about infectious diseases like Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), a foreign virus that has rapidly swept the country over the past month.

MERS was first reported in Korea on May 20, after a 68-year-old man who had previously gone on a business trip to the Middle East tested positive. On Friday, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced one additional case and two fatalities, bringing total MERS cases in the country to 181 and the death toll to 31.

The National Assembly held a vote Thursday, passing what’s been called the MERS bill, meant to revise and strengthen the country’s prevention measures and general control system when it comes to infectious diseases. Most of the revisions are expected to take effect early next year.

The main focus of the revisions is to deploy more epidemiological investigators and afford them more authority in the field.

“In an effort to strengthen the government’s capacity to contain infectious diseases, the revised law increases the number of epidemiological investigators to at least 64,” a ministry official said. “More than 30 investigators will be positioned at the Ministry of Health and Welfare and each metropolitan city or province is required to have two or more epidemiological investigators.”

Right now, there are only 34 epidemiological investigators in Korea and 32 of them are public health doctors who are working instead of completing their mandatory military service.

Current law only stipulates that the ministry or local governments may employ epidemiological investigators for tasks regarding infectious diseases. Under the revised law, epidemiological investigators and quarantine workers may give orders on their own, which will speed up procedures, as they won’t be required to wait for approval from their superiors.

Investigators will also be given authority to enforce immediate measures, including shutting down hazardous areas, restricting travel or imposing lockdowns. Violators will be given up to two years in prison or fined as much as 20 million won ($17,870).

Quarantine workers are also allowed to restrict passage, dispose of infectious materials and mobilize medical workers for quarantine.

The revised law additionally requires the Health Ministry to quickly distribute information about the hospitals and locals infected patients have visited.

Penalties for those who provide false statements in epidemiological studies - who used to be fined up to 2 million won - will also be strengthened, resulting in a prison term of two years maximum or up to a 20 million won fine.

“We welcome that the revisions to the law on infectious disease prevention was passed quickly at the National Assembly,” a ministry official said. “The revisions are expected to level the country’s quarantine system. We’ll be prepared and do our best to contain the spread of infectious diseases with strengthened measures.”

On Friday, just after the ’s passage, the Health Ministry announced that the newly diagnosed MERS patient was a 26-year-old doctor from Samsung Medical Center, where more than 80 people have been infected so far. His age has raised concerns that he could suffer from a potentially fatal immune reaction, which was believed to have occurred in two other patients in their 30s, including another doctor at the hospital.

The death toll Friday stood at 31, after Patients No. 87 and 140 passed away. So far, 81 out of 181 confirmed MERS patients have made full recoveries and been discharged from the hospital.

BY KIM BONG-MOON [kim.bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]

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