Half-baked countermeasures

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Half-baked countermeasures

Under new government measures to preempt the spread of infectious diseases, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be fully in charge in the case of any outbreak, elevated to the rank of a vice-ministerial office. When Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) first broke out, the government came under fire for its lack of organization and slow policy-making.

Hospitals with more than 300 hospital beds must be equipped with negative-pressure isolation wards to block contamination on site, and the government plans to recruit more than 20 disease experts annually to increase expertise on infectious diseases. But the measures raise questions regarding effectiveness. Just because the head of the center has been upgraded to a vice-ministerial rank does not mean he or she would have full authority on appointments and the budget. The center’s director was a mere figurehead during the MERS crisis. Even if it remains under the auspices of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the ministry should have realigned to two separate divisions in health and welfare under two vice ministers.

The ministry was criticized for its botched response during the outbreak because it was too tilted toward welfare policy. Of the ministry’s total 53.4 trillion won ($45.3 billion) budget this year, just 4 percent, or 2.3 trillion won, was earmarked for health care and the medical sector. It’s unclear how much improvements can be made in public health care with such meager funds. The government announced it would increase isolation units in large hospitals when the country was at risk due to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, but didn’t proceed due to a lack of finances.

It repeated that announcement this time but did not say how it will subsidize hospitals. The government also failed to specify how it can improve problems at local hospitals vulnerable to epidemics due to crowded emergency rooms and a lack of space. Emergency rooms have long been run beyond their means. In 20 major hospitals, the ratio of inpatients against hospital beds in emergency rooms hit 131. After insurance coverage, a stay in an emergency ward costs 54,840 won, compared with 71,290 won for a five-bed room. A night in intensive care also costs 140,000 won.

The government has proposed encouraging hospitals to keep rooms to a maximum of four beds. But it didn’t say how it will help convalescent hospitals and small hospitals with rooms with as many as 18 beds. Such makeshift actions do not guarantee we will be safe from another outbreak.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 2, Page 34

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