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Gov’t raises alert to ‘caution’ in the wake of first MERS outbreak in 3 years

Gov’t raises alert to ‘caution’ in the wake of first MERS outbreak in 3 years

Posted September. 10, 2018 08:14,   

Updated September. 10, 2018 08:14


A patient infected with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has been reported for the first time in three years in Korea, after the disease caused 39 deaths in 2015 in the country. Critics say that the patient who passed the airport quarantine service without proper quarantine measures was diagnosed with MERS more than four hours later, revealing loopholes in the nation’s infectious disease quarantine system.

According to the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday, a 61-year-old plant engineering company executive living in Seoul visited Kuwait from August 16 to September 6, transited in Dubai in the United Aram Emirates before arriving at Incheon International Airport at 4:51 pm on Friday. As the patient passed through the airport quarantine desk, he reported diarrhea to a quarantine officer, but the quarantine officer only checked his body temperature at 36.3 degrees Celsius, and let him go. Even though the patient returned from the Middle East region and voluntarily reported typical MERS syndromes, the quarantine authority thus overlooked. Notably, the patient was suffering from diarrhea so severe that he had to use a wheelchair when passing through the quarantine counter. He even visited a local hospital due to diarrhea while staying in Kuwait.

After leaving the airport arrival area, he took a private limousine tax by himself and visited Samsung Seoul Hospital at 7:22 p.m. on the day. The hospital reported the person as a suspected MERS patient to the health authority at 9:34 p.m., more than four hours after passing through the airport quarantine service without being checked properly.

During these hours, the patient came into close contact with 22 people including flight attendants, passengers, a quarantine officer, medical professionals and his family members. The taxi driver who took the patient to the hospital and a helper who assisted him in the wheelchair were not initially identified, and were excluded from the list of ‘people who came into close contact’ announced by the health authority on Saturday. After the 2015 MERS epidemics, Korea spent nearly 1 trillion won (900 million U.S. dollars) to increase quarantine manpower and strengthen the airport quarantine system, but loopholes have been revealed nonetheless. The 22 people are currently under quarantine.

Youn-Jong Kim zozo@donga.com · Gun-Hee Cho becom@donga.com