Un­ease over MERS grow­ing in South Korea

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Steven Borowiec Borowiec is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

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.

Han Jong-chan Yon­hap

WORK­ERS spray an an­ti­sep­tic so­lu­tion in a plane at the in­ter­na­tional air­port in In­cheon, South Korea.

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