There were a number of reasons for the heavier-than-expected tolls from MERS two years ago, but none were more serious than transparent communication or lack thereof, participants at a workshop agreed Wednesday.
Referring to the Middle Eastern Reparatory Syndrome outbreak as a wake-up call, Park Ki-soo, the spokesperson for Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), said, “If we had released the right information at the right time to the right people, I predict that we would have had less than 100 infected patients.”
Park noted that government institutions, including KCDC, are ramping up efforts to improve infectious disease control measures, keeping lessons learned from the MERS outbreak in mind. The two-day workshop, jointly hosted by KCDC and Asia-Europe Foundation, invited a host of experts from various countries to discuss ways to improve measure for controlling infectious diseases.
|Park Ki-soo, a spokesperson for Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks about the importance of communication in dealing with infectious diseases, during a workshop jointly hosted by KCDC and Asia-Europe Foundation in downtown Seoul Wednesday.|
It was May 20, 2015, that doctors confirmed the first patient of MERS, and the disease spread rapidly throughout the country, affecting 186 people and killing 36 of them. Experts cite that the government’s response to the outbreak was one of the biggest fumbles in infectious disease control.
The causes for the lackluster response were complex and varied; however, the main issues, as Park pointed out, were crowded emergency rooms, weak standards for quarantine, a broken referral system, use of public transportation, and failure of communication.
In particular, the KCDC official stressed the problem of communication.
According to Park, the government disclosed the names of 24 hospitals that had been affected with the disease on June 8, 2015, 18 days after the first infection. In the interim, people who had little to no information continued to visit friends and family per tradition, which caused the disease to spread.
“Information disclosure failure is not just a failure of communication but also an inability to contain the disease,” Park said. “In the case of MERS, people kept visiting friends and family, and not only that, but people also did not report their symptoms to health authorities since they simply did not know what they were.”
As the disease continued to spread with no governmental support, people began to grow frustrated and angry with the government for not providing any information. Rumors began to spread, creating panic, according to Park. Some online communities even drew up a map of affected hospitals on their own after gathering sources from friends, acquaintances, and online resources.
“People began to believe the rumors,” Park said. “In the case of the map made by netizens, almost 80 to 90 percent of the locations were, in fact, infected. The government took a passive approach to communicating with the public and bought the public’s distrust.”
Government officials then made another blunder by “over-reassuring” the public, Park continued.
“Although it is okay to tell your children to ‘look on the bright side,’ that is not the case with risk communication. We need to look on the dark side to prepare for unexpected events and possible risks and prepare for them beforehand,” he said.
In this regard, Park believes that trust is the foundation for effective disease control, which must be developed during “peace time,” not during times of crisis.
“We are strengthening EOC to operate 24/7 within KCDC and practicing many exercises, improving the referral system to control ‘doctor shopping,’ reducing multi-bedroom in hospitals and space adjustments between beds, while also changing the ER triage system,” Park said.
Dr. Joy Caminade, an official from the World Health Organization Western Pacific Regional Offices, said that “in times of uncertainty, and especially in the early stages, people need to know what information they have and how to use the information to protect their lives. That information, no matter how incomplete, is necessary to communicate with the public.”
Dr. Karen Tan, from Singapore Ministry of Communication and Information, agreed: “What SARS taught us is the importance of being prepared and flexible at the same time. While you plan, you must have the flexibility to plan for the unexpected. Tell people what we know, say what we don’t know, and tell them what we are going to find out.”
“We need to build credibility with the population not just during crisis situations, but all along the way. Transparency is transparency in implementation. We must continuously work so that when a crisis comes, we have a bank of trust to draw from,” she added.
KCDC is undertaking the task with great force, Park said, but still has a long way to go.
“Which areas need improvement to control for infectious diseases?” He asked the audience. After a pause, he answered the question: “All.”
<© Korea Biomedical Review, All rights reserved.>