Unease over MERS growing in South Korea
SEOUL — Seoul’s normally bustling streets and subway were quieter than usual Friday. More than 900 schools nationwide, mostly in and around Seoul, had canceled classes during the week. Many public events were postponed, including youth sports tournaments.
The cautionary measures have resulted from growing unease over Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, which officials say has resulted in four deaths among 41 infections in South Korea, including five new cases announced Friday.
South Korea has the highest incidence of MERS outside the Middle East, where the virus first was reported in 2012 and where most of the 434 related deaths have been recorded. The first South Korea case was reported May 20, involving a man who had returned from Saudi Arabia.
The South Korean government response has been a hot-button issue for a public still shaken by the sinking last year of the Sewol ferry, in which 304 passengers died. The government was a target of criticism for what bereaved families viewed as a tardy and ineffective rescue operation.
On Friday, data from public opinion polling firm Gallup Korea showed President Park Geun-hye’s approval rating at 34%, a 6% drop from the previous week.
Officials are lobbing accusations of mishandling the outbreak back and forth, with Seoul Mayor Park Wonsoon criticizing the central government for not publicly releasing the names of hospitals where patients contracted MERS.
Citing privacy concerns, authorities initially opted not to disclose the names of the hospitals where the deaths occurred. Under pressure, the Ministry of Health and Welfare eventually released the name of St. Mary’s Hospital in Pyeongtaek, a city south of Seoul, where most of the cases were diagnosed.
Park Won-soon also berated the government for not quarantining a doctor who had contracted MERS. The man reportedly defied a government order to stay at home, attended a public event and came into contact with more than 1,500 people, Park said.
In a Friday morning news briefing, Minister of Health and Welfare Hong Moon-pyo expressed regret for not quarantining the man. Hong said the government is doing all it can to contain the virus and that Park’s comments only stoked public worry and undermined the government’s efforts to control the outbreak.
Many people don white masks in public places in an attempt to avoid catching the virus.
A pharmacy operator in central Seoul, Jang Jee-in, said that over the last week she has sold more than 20 times as many N95 particulate-filtering masks as usual, and that she has been out of stock for two days.
“Even at the height of winter, when everyone is worried about catching a cold, we don’t sell nearly this many,” Jang said.
MERS symptoms include fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Health experts have said that at its outset, MERS can be difficult to identify. The virus has an incubation period of about 15 days, so the official tally of those infected in South Korea could rise.
Police told the Yonhap News Agency on Friday that they will hold suspected virus carriers at medical facilities if they defy government orders to stay at home.
There is no known cure for MERS.
It is thought to spread via an infected person’s respiratory secretions, such as coughing, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the exact methods of the virus’ transmission are not clear.
All the infected people in South Korea had contact with infected patients or medical staff members.
Song Dae-sup, a professor at the Korea University College of Pharmacy, recommended basic hygiene as a way of slowing the spread of MERS.
“I encourage everyone to just take steps to boost their immune systems, such as eating properly and getting enough sleep,” Song said.
When asked whether she believes that the masks can prevent transmission, Jang, herself clad in a mask while working behind the counter at Hana Pharmacy, said, “Not perfectly, but they can help.”
She said the pharmacy wouldn’t have a new shipment until early next week. Until then, she must turn away prospective customers looking for the masks.
WORKERS spray an antiseptic solution in a plane at the international airport in Incheon, South Korea.