A permanent danger
One of the major news items last year in Korea was the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). The first patient was confirmed on May 20, after which 185 more fell sick; 38 died and thousands were quarantined.
Health authorities declared the end to the outbreak on Dec. 24.
Korea seems to have joined developed countries through unprecedented and rapid economic growth, but we have to admit that our health care and medical systems were unprepared to tackle the MERS crisis.
Preventing new outbreaks is a serious challenge, especially as foreign visitors continue to increase. So it would be meaningful to establish an advanced and effective system for response and prevention. Is Korea ready for future crises?
The MERS outbreak should not be regarded as a situation that escalated simply because one patient, infected during an overseas trip, returned and spread the virus. It developed into a public health emergency because health authorities failed in their initial response, and various social and cultural factors only complicated matters.
More specifically, the government failed to provide accurate information in the early stages. Emergency rooms at medical facilities were ill-prepared and overcrowded and there weren’t enough properly equipped isolation rooms to treat contagious patients. The exchange of information among medical centers was not smoothly facilitated, and patient information was not properly transferred.
The families of the patients also suffered because they had to provide care for their sick relatives and visits were not strictly regulated.
In order to prevent the reoccurrence of public health crises from epidemic outbreaks, a comprehensive plan addressing all these problems needs to be established.
During the outbreak, the media covered the situation day by day, and the government presented responses. The National Assembly revised existing laws or drafted new ones to prepare a legal basis and the Ministry of Health and Welfare also came up with new plans.
It is noteworthy that 20 organizations went on to form a national alliance to fight MERS based on the shared understanding that there is a need for fundamental reforms in health care industry.
The Korean Public Health Association and other health and consumer groups, civic organizations and patients associations joined the alliance to host panel discussions and release statements and press reports, pressuring the government to pursue more aggressive policies.
The association proposed specific reform plans - particularly to improve regional public health and disease prevention systems and reinforce public health care.
It also called for a systematic education program for public health professionals and suggested forming a public health and medical reform committee directly under the president.
Moreover, they demanded recognition for the citizens, medical professionals and civil servants who contributed to controlling the outbreak and proper compensation for MERS patients, those put under quarantine and their families.
The National Academy of Medicine, an organization of senior medical professionals, also offered opinions on post-outbreak measures. It proposed the establishment and full-time operation of a nationwide emergency response system, accurate medical information-sharing and smooth communication, a clear medical communication system and independence for the Ministry of Welfare to work as an agency in charge of public health.
We need more than government efforts to make Korea healthier by establishing an effective crisis response system to prevent future health crises. Based on the active and voluntary participation of the medical community and citizens, the government and the National Assembly should prepare new laws, systems and policies. Stop-gap measures won’t work. The government needs to consistently invest manpower and funding into creating a system that can conduct these tasks and actually make improvements.
The MERS crisis tells us that another outbreak can only be the result of our negligence. Civil servants and public health professionals need to remain alert and our lawmakers must support their effort. Only then can a system of emergency control be established.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 4, Page 29
*The author is the president of the Korea Public Health Association and a professor of preventive medicine at Seoul National University Medical School.
by Park Byung-joo