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[Newsmaker] Ministry under fire for MERS response

As Seoul on Monday confirmed its fourth MERS case ― the daughter of the third confirmed patient, who asked to be quarantined but was rejected by the authorities ― the Health Ministry is under fire for the poor handling of the potential patients.

Fear of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in Korea further spread on Tuesday as two medical staff members who had been in contact with the patients showed symptoms of fever. The two were transported to a hospital to test for infection, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The fourth confirmed patient, in her 40s, spent about five hours with her 76-year-old father, who was sharing the hospital room with the first of two confirmed MERS patients earlier this month.

Passengers arriving from the Middle East pass by a thermal camera at Incheon airport on May 21. (Yonhap)
Passengers arriving from the Middle East pass by a thermal camera at Incheon airport on May 21. (Yonhap)

When her father became the third confirmed MERS patient on May 21, she reportedly asked the health authorities to quarantine her, as she was experiencing mild symptoms including a fever and a headache. The woman was worried that she may have MERS, and wished to be isolated at a medical facility for fear of transmitting the virus to her husband and daughter.

The authorities, however, sent her home, saying her symptoms were not strong enough to be considered MERS. Yet she eventually showed a high fever five days after her father’s diagnosis and was confirmed as the fourth MERS patient in the country.

Since her diagnosis, the Health Ministry has been accused by the public of acting negligently despite widespread fear of the rare disease by rejecting her initial request to be isolated, which left her husband and her daughter also at potential risk of infection.

The incubation period of MERS is two to 14 days, and it is believed that patients are not contagious during that period. A fever above 38 degrees Celsius is considered one of the typical symptoms of MERS, along with coughing and shortness of breath.

The Health Ministry explained that the fourth patient’s fever on May 21 didn’t reach 38 degrees Celsius, and she therefore wasn’t considered a potential MERS patient.

Dr. Kim Woo-joo, who is also the head of the Transgovernmental Enterprise for Pandemic Influenza in Korea, said the fourth patient should have been isolated in a medical facility even if her fever wasn’t above 38 degrees Celsius.

“I think (the government) should have been more flexible with the particular case,” he told The Korea Herald. “I think the ministry was focusing too much on the rules that only those whose fever is above 38 degrees Celsius should have quarantined. For the fourth patient, however, they should have taken into account that she was in the same room as three other confirmed MERS patients and she, in fact, nursed one of them.”

Asked if the fourth patient’s spouse and daughter should be isolated, Kim said the ministry should consult with the fourth patient first. “If she physically stayed away from her family in the house ― at least 2 meters away at all times ― I think the chances (of infection) aren’t very high,” he said.

A total of 63 individuals, including health care workers and the patients’ families, were being monitored for possible infection on Tuesday.

MERS is known to be caused by coronaviruses, a large family of viruses that cause a range of illnesses in humans from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

There is no known cure or vaccine for MERS, which has a fatality rate of 40.7 percent.

More than 95 percent of the confirmed cases worldwide were in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The first Korean MERS patient was diagnosed with the disease on May 20, following his trip to the Middle East from April 18 to May 3.

Since it was first identified in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, 1,142 people from 23 countries have been infected by the virus. Among them, 465 died from the disease.

By Claire Lee (