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MERS fear haunts Korea again‘Country needs stricter quarantine checks against travelers from Middle East’
  • By Kwak Sung-sun
  • Published 2018.09.10 14:12
  • Updated 2018.09.10 14:12
  • comments 0

The Korean health authorities have confirmed the first case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in three years and three months. In the summer of 2015, the infectious disease and fear gripped the nation and claimed 38 lives.

A 61-year-old Korean man was diagnosed with the MERS on Saturday, after returning from a business trip to Kuwait via Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. As of Sunday afternoon, 22 people who had close contact with the patient have voluntarily quarantined themselves at home.

A British woman, who took the same flight with the patient, tested negative in a preliminary examination on Monday morning after showing symptoms including fever. However, the final confirmation has yet to come. The health authorities said community center officials would activate the one-on-one monitoring on 440 people who were on the same plane with the patient.

The National Medical Center’s state-designated isolation ward where a British woman suspected of infection with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is receiving treatment.

How was the first MERS case reported?

The 61-year-old man, who tested positive for MERS, had arrived at the Incheon International Airport on Saturday, after visiting Kuwait and transferring flights in Dubai.

During a visit to Kuwait on Aug. 28, he had diarrhea and visited a local hospital. During the quarantine check at arrival, he reported diarrhea symptoms to the authorities.

However, he passed the quarantine because MERS checklist did not have diarrhea. Instead, the list included a recent visit to the Middle East, respiratory symptoms, and fever with body temperature at 37.5 degrees Celsius or higher.

To treat diarrhea after coming out of the airport, the patient chose to head to Samsung Medical Center in southern Seoul where his acquaintance was working as a physician. During the medical exam, he reported stomachache and diarrhea, as well as his recent visit to the Middle East.

After confirming the patient’s Middle East visit, Samsung Medical Center immediately placed the patient to a separate emergency room. After checking his fever, phlegm, and pneumonia symptoms, the hospital reported him to the health authorities as a suspected MERS patient. Then, the hospital moved him to Seoul National University in central Seoul.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government Research Institute of Public Health and Environment finally confirmed that the man was infected with the potentially deadly disease. The patient is now receiving quarantine treatment at the SNUH.

Double checks prevented widespread infectious disease

The first MERS case in three years has put the health authorities on edge. However, the initial responses of the confirmed patient and Samsung Medical Center significantly helped prevent the disease further spread, observers said.

The patient initially minimized the contact with others after exiting the airport. He promptly went to Samsung Medical Center by taxi, which reduced the chance of the nationwide outbreak.

If he had returned to his daily routines and delayed the hospital visit, or had used public transportation to the hospital, he would have closely contacted with far more people. In that case, it would have been quite difficult for the authorities to check who had close contact with the patient in public transportation.

Medical staffs at Samsung Medical Center made a swift decision as well. Although the patient talked only about problems in his digestive system at the hospital, physicians raised suspicion of the MERS infection after hearing that the patient had visited the Middle East. The staffs isolated the patient from the beginning, minimizing the contact with people within the hospital.

Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo said he felt grateful to Samsung Medical Center for taking good initial care. “The patient also helped the authorities control the entry of the MERS into the nation,” he said.

Prime Minister Lee orders ‘excessive response’

Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon urged government officials to take “excessive” measures to fight the MERS from spreading at a ministerial meeting on Sunday.

“Unfortunately, a MERS case has been reported. Doctors, government officials, and all the Korean people remember the 2015 MERS outbreak which remains like a trauma. We remember not only 38 fatalities but the whole developments of the tragedy,” Lee said.

Although the nation had a good initial response, government officials should take excessive measures preemptively, Lee added.

“We learned a lesson from the 2015 outbreak that it was better to respond excessively than belatedly. I hope you could do so this time,” he told ministers.

What will be the authorities’ next moves?

The government is actively monitoring the Korean patient, the British suspected patient, 22 who had close contact with the patient, and 440 people who were on the same flight. bThe health authorities are to decide their next response moves depending on whether an additional confirmed MERS case occurs.

As the disease has a latency period of 14 days, the authorities said they would isolate the 463 people for at least two weeks.

However, some experts called for the government to toughen quarantine rules because the current system failed to screen out the MERS patient, even if it can control the disease at an early stage.

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), quarantine officials directly examine every individual getting off the planes arriving in Seoul from the Middle East.

Internationally used MERS inspections include checks on respiratory symptoms and fever over 37.5 degrees Celsius. As the patient reported diarrhea only with the body temperature normal at 36.3 degrees, he was able to pass the quarantine process.

As the quarantine manuals failed to spot the suspected MERS patient, the government should enhance them, observers said.


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