Why the Korean CDC doesn’t work

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Why the Korean CDC doesn’t work

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is more like the “waiting room on a temporary stay,” one of the organization’s researchers, surnamed Jeong, 33, told me when we met in Cheongju, North Chungcheong, while I was covering the outbreak here of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

At first, I thought the sentiment was just a personal confession. The CDC is the first line of defense in disease prevention under the Ministry of Health and Welfare, so I figured he must have had personal reasons to consider the post temporary. Then I asked more than 20 other researchers what they thought about their jobs.

Surprisingly, most of them were considering a job change.

“This is just like any other irregular position,” said a 38-year-old researcher surnamed Kim, who majored in health science. “I have to think about my future.”

Another added, “I want to use my experience and research here to get a job at a private research center or a faculty position.”

Working for a state-run research center looks respectable on a worker’s resume, but it’s not a long-term career option. Currently, the CDC and the National Institute of Health have 930 employees, and 67 percent, or 624, are irregular positions. But not all the members of this organization would agree with these researchers. And being irregular employees doesn’t mean they’re not experts. However, it is seriously concerning that these researchers are on the front lines of disease prevention and yet only consider their work at the CDC a mere stepping stone - especially now that the MERS outbreak in Korea has continued for more than 40 days.

So I looked into the CDC’s hiring process. Whenever a project is launched, a necessary number of researchers in relevant fields is hired. Most of the applicants are in their 30s and have studied in their specific field for at least 10 years, with higher degrees in health science, nursing, biology or computer science, among others. They’re hired on a contractual basis, and if they don’t obtain a permanent position, they move elsewhere. Yonsei Professor Jun Byung-ryul, who formerly headed the CDC, said it was a great loss for the organization and the nation to allow talented researchers to leave.

Public health authorities will surely get the MERS outbreak under control soon, and their experience fighting against the virus will be a valuable asset. But as long as researchers consider the CDC a “waiting room,” they can’t accumulate that kind of experience or expertise. At this rate, the response to future outbreaks surely won’t be much different.

The author is a national news reporter
for the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 1, Page 29

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