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Korean authorities ‘may be making the Mers outbreak worse’, says Hong Kong expert on Sars

Korean authorities ‘may be making the Mers outbreak worse’, says Hong Kong expert on Sars
Expert chides Seoul’s lack of transparency and failure to isolate Mers patients as one more dies

Emily Tsang, and Elizabeth Cheung

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Safety first in Kwong Wah Hospital yesterday. Photo: Sam Tsang

An expert on Sars has hit out at the South Korean government over its handling of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) outbreak, and warned the situation “could get out of control” if there is not a cultural change in the way officials handle the problem.

One more patient died from the virus in the country on Wednesday night. The 83-year-old man was the first death of a patient among so-called third-generation cases – people who caught the virus from someone infected by a primary source. His death brought the number of deaths in South Korea to three.

South Korean media said the man had underlying diseases and had no contact with the country’s first confirmed case. He was only confirmed to have been infected with Mers in tests done yesterday after his death.

Six new Mers cases were reported in South Korea yesterday, putting the total number of confirmed cases in the country at 36.

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Tourists at Incheon airport near Seoul.
University of Hong Kong microbiologist Ho Pak-leung described the Mers outbreak in South Korea as “worrying and deteriorating”, and criticised the government’s handling of the problem. “Medical standards in [South] Korea are good, especially in plastic surgery,” he said. “But the way they are handling infection controls is quite shocking to me. I am worried it may be making things worse.”

South Korean media said Mers-infected patients had visited 14 hospitals in the country, but authorities would not name the institutions.

Ho said the practice of transferring infected or suspected patients between hospitals before isolating and treating them had put medical staff and patients at risk. He said there could be more outbreaks at different hospitals if this practice is not stopped.

Citing the experience of severe acute respiratory syndrome, Ho said the best way to minimise the risk of transmission was to centralise patients in one institution with experienced medics professionally trained to handle infectious diseases.
“Hong Kong learned a painful lesson from Sars that scattering patients around increases the death toll,” Ho said.

South Korean officials should be transparent in releasing data so that experts could assess the situation accurately, Ho said. “Covering up data only causes more panic among the public. Even the Chinese government learned a lesson from Sars – to be more transparent,” he added.

South Korean media reported one Mers patient had direct or indirect contact with about 1,400 people since showing symptoms.

More than 1,100 schools have been closed in South Korea and about 1,600 people put under quarantine.

The South Korean government said “it is a regret” that a 44-year-old Korean man infected with Mers entered the mainland via Hong Kong on May 26. It said it would “closely cooperate” with Hong Kong and the mainland.

North Korea has been alerted about the outbreak and officials have asked their southern counterparts to provide heat-detecting cameras to monitor the temperature of South Korean workers entering the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which lies north of the border. During last year’s Ebola outbreak, the South lent the North three cameras.

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A teacher sprays sanitiser at a student.

Tourism industry feels the pain

South Korea’s tourism industry is feeling the impact of Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), with large numbers of foreign tourists, mostly from China, cancelling trips.

The World Health Organisation has not recommended any travel restrictions but about 7,000 people from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan had scrapped visits to South Korea as of June 2, a spokesman for the Korea Tourism Organisation said.

“A mass cancellation of this scale is very unusual … and many travellers cited the Mers outbreak as the main reason,” a KTO spokesman said.

The Chinese are South Korea’s biggest tourist group, with the number of travellers from the nation surpassing six million for the first time in 2014.

Japan said it was looking into possible quarantine measures for people arriving from South Korea.

Local discount outlets were quoted by Yonhap News Agency as saying they were worried about a possible decline in sales caused by the fall in Chinese tourists and the reluctance of local consumers to go shopping.

In Hong Kong, travel agency Package Tours is cancelling 11 tours to Seoul that depart between June 8 and 16, involving more than 200 people, “on customers’ requests”.

Managing director Yuen Chun-ning said all customers who had signed up for the tours wanted a full refund without handling charges.

“So we are cancelling the tours and refunding them,” he said, adding that some had chosen to go to other destinations.

Joseph Tung Yao-chung, executive director of the Travel Industry Council, said at this stage the council would not recommend cancelling tours to Seoul. He hoped customers would understand it could be difficult to get a full refund given that no authorities had issued travel warnings against Seoul.

“The airlines may not refund the money and the receiving agents there also may not want to refund the money,” Tung said.

Agencies and Timmy Sung

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Authorities ‘may be making outbreak worse’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 June, 2015, 2:37am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 June, 2015, 9:02am

#MERSKorea   #SARSHongKong

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