Preparations for diseases need urgency, says Hwang

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Preparations for diseases need urgency, says Hwang

As Korea nears a full recovery from the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) earlier this year, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn urged health authorities Thursday to “speed up” reforms of the national response system in case of future crises.

Presiding over a meeting at the Seoul Government Complex, Hwang urged the Ministry of Health to be more aggressive to overhaul the current system.

“It’s urgent that we make this country safe,” said Hwang. One example of things that need to be done is the hiring of epidemiologists and stationing them nationwide, he said.

Epidemiologists investigate the causes, effects and patterns of diseases. A critical lack of epidemiologists was one of the key reasons MERS spread so expansively in Korea, becoming the largest outbreak outside the Middle East.

Other reform measures mentioned in Thursday’s meeting were setting up more negative pressure rooms - which keep pathogens from leaking from hospital rooms - in designated hospitals, improving systems at emergency wards, and designing emergency response manuals for government organizations and hospitals.

No deadline for those reforms was mentioned.

The JoongAng Ilbo exclusively reported Wednesday that the Health Ministry is planning to hire some 75 full-time epidemiologists, up from only two as of last month.

A ministry official spoke with the JoongAng Ilbo on the condition of anonymity.

Although neither Hwang nor the Health Ministry confirmed Thursday the precise number of epidemiologists to be hired, Hwang said that more will definitely be recruited by the end of this year.

After being introduced to the country by a man returning from a business trip to the Middle East in May, MERS spread nationwide, primarily in Seoul and Gyeonggi, infecting 186 people and killing 37. More than 16,000 people were quarantined.

The country has a single remaining MERS patient, a 35-year-old man hospitalized at Seoul National University Hospital in Jongno District, central Seoul. He reportedly has a weak immune system because he suffered from lymphoma in the past, and he is in poor health.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, JEONG JONG-HUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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