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A Deadly Virus Returns to Korea

Updated: Feb 24, 2019

By Sungwon Cho, Staff Writer

On September 8, 2018, a 61-year-old South Korean man who returned from a three-week business trip to Kuwait was quarantined in Seoul National University Hospital after testing positive for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV). This case revived the fear of MERS-CoV among the Korean population, especially since Incheon Airport’s Quarantine Station failed to detain him, despite his reports of having suffered from symptoms of MERS-CoV over previous weeks.

MERS is a respiratory disease caused by the virus MERS-CoV. Most MERS patients developed severe acute respiratory illness, with common symptoms of fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 3 to 4 of every 10 patients reported with MERS have died. It was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and since has been reported in 27 countries including China, Egypt, Germany, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

The man reported that he had stayed in Kuwait for three weeks and had experienced diarrhea and high fever. However, his temperature was a normal 36.3 degrees Celsius (97.34 degrees Fahrenheit) thanks to the medicine he had taken during his flight, and he showed no other common symptoms of MERS-CoV, such as coughing, phlegm, or dyspnea (difficulty breathing). Thus, quarantine officers did not suspect him to be a MERS-CoV patient. Although they instructed him to contact emergency health services if he found himself with a high fever, their inadequate response led to the spread of the infection.

The passenger carrying MERS-CoV was not wearing a mask on the day of his flight and was in a wheelchair while reporting his symptoms to the Quarantine Station, potentially transmitting the virus to anyone that he came into contact with. Due to the Quarantine Station’s lackluster screening, people who came into contact with the passenger, such as airline staff who pushed his wheelchair, immigration officers, and the taxi driver who drove him to the hospital are now under investigation, placing a massive burden on the nation: the government currently needs to trace more than 400 potentially infected individuals.The secondary victims of MERS-CoV could have avoided the illness altogether if the quarantine officers were vigilant with regards to all of the symptoms of MERS-CoV; however, because the quarantine officers only knew of the most typical symptoms of MERS-CoV, they failed to correctly diagnose the passenger, allowing his sickness to spread.

The Quarantine Station’s clumsy mistake has led people to question its effectiveness. Under this flawed system, it should come as no surprise that the situation was improperly addressed; Korea has struggled with the same issues in the past. The failure of a proper response to MERS-CoV this year is a repeat of the widespread outbreak of the same illness in South Korea in 2015, which incited similar public panic.

The South Korean government is culpable for the negligent response to issues of public health. Demonstrating a clear lack of respect for the dangers of disease, the government repeats its mistakes over and over again, setting a bad example for the public and risking many innocent lives.


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