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[Editorial] Better prepared?

Authorities, public should stay alert for MERS epidemic

It seems that the nation is better prepared for the Middle East respiratory syndrome than it was three years ago. But authorities’ response to a new case of the deadly infectious disease was not without loopholes.

The biggest loophole so far was that the airport quarantine inspector let an apparent MERS patient pass through the checkpoint. The 61-year-old man told the quarantine officer that he was returning from a 22-day business trip to Kuwait and that he visited a hospital there with diarrhea.

The quarantine office said that the inspector let the man in because he did not have fever and respiratory problems. But what the officer missed is that diarrhea is one of the main symptoms of MERS. The man was also so feeble as to require the use of a wheelchair when the airplane landed at the airport.

We also have to ask about whether the quarantine inspector at Incheon International Airport knew that in Saudi Arabia, where the first MERS case was reported in 2012, 114 people have been infected by the lethal virus this year and 30 of them have died. That alone should have alerted all the quarantine staff at the nation’s gateways to closely check travelers from the Middle East.

Although to a lesser degree than in 2015, health authorities also made some bungles of their early responses. Initially, authorities said there were 20 people who came in close contact with the patient, including flight attendants, passengers and medical staff. But they did not count the person who helped the patient with wheelchair and a taxi driver who took him to Samsung Medical Center in southern Seoul. Finally, a passenger was excluded and 21 people were put under house quarantine.

Given what happened three years ago, things like this are a cause for concern. We know from our past experience what the consequences are when even one MERS patient or carrier of the deadly, contagious virus is let loose.

The longer such watchlists, the greater the chances of containing the disease at an early stage. Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon was right to say that any precautionary measures cannot be too excessive.

What’s fortunate is that the patient, now sheltered at a negative pressure isolation room of Seoul National University Hospital, acted in a very different way from the first patient of the 2015 outbreak.

After meeting his wife at the airport, the man called a taxi to go straight to Samsung Medical Center alone. It would have been better for him to call an ambulance, but the patient minimized human contact when leaving the airport.

On his way to the SMC, he informed the hospital staff of his trip to Kuwait and his symptoms, which alerted them to his potential infection. Eight hours later, he was diagnosed with the virus and transferred to the SNU Hospital.

That reminds us of the importance of what individual citizens should do in the face of an epidemic. In 2015, the first MERS patient, without knowing he was carrying the deadly virus, visited four hospitals freely after returning from a visit to Saudi Arabia and two other Middle East countries. The hospitals, including the SMC, were totally unprepared and they became hotbeds of the viral disease.

As the disease was spreading, some who were put under quarantine at home went out for leisurely activities like golf games and overseas trips. Such imprudence on the part of citizens, government negligence and the lack of a solid health care system for contagious diseases combined to spread the disease.

The result was that a total of 186 people were infected by the virus, with 38 them losing their lives. More than 16,000 were quarantined and thousands of schools were closed. The economy, especially the tourism and retail industries, was battered badly. That should never be repeated.

Most of all, no loopholes should be allowed in monitoring the 21 people who have been put under house quarantine and the 439 people put under the watchlist. Also indispensable is tighter quarantine and health check rules on travelers from Middle East countries and other infectious disease-prone regions.