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Dealing with MERS Outbreak, Prevention and Places to Avoid in Korea

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Since last week, from the time MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) has been in the news both here in Korea and abroad, my Mom’s relentless reminders have hounded me and pushed me to take extra precautions. I wasn’t so worried before as things have been quite normal where I live. In Namyangju, no one seems to be in a state of panic, at least not the locals. In fact, when we went  to Homeplus yesterday, just a day after South Korea confirmed the death of the fourth MERS patient, there were a lot of people doing their usual weekend grocery shopping; however, a few shoppers wore masks. Some flocked the toiletry section to purchase disinfectants and hand antiseptics. People were starting to take safety measures against the dreaded virus, which is the right thing to do considering how fast MERS has spread at some hospitals in the country since report of the first MERS case came out on May 20 about a South Korean man who contracted the disease after returning to Korea from a business trip to the Middle East.

Despite the precautions, most people had no qualms about getting free food samples even though it was obvious that the food had been exposed and the staff giving food samples were not wearing masks. Oh, except for the one handing free taste of beer. I had to tell my husband to refrain from eating food samples, but he just can’t resist freebies. I was glad that Homeplus was taking preventive measures against the spread of virus by having one of their employees spray disinfectant on the handles of shopping carts, but perhaps they could also advise the free food handlers to wear masks as an SOP, not just now that MERS is a hot topic in Korea.

Workers disinfect a subway train in Seoul as MERS outbreak continues (Source: Seoul Community Page)

Workers disinfect a subway train in Seoul as MERS outbreak continues. (Source: Seoul Community Page)

In the hagwon where I work, it wasn’t until last week when some of the students started wearing masks and bringing hand sanitizers to class. Some commuters can be seen wearing masks now. Two weeks ago, I used to get glares from other people everytime I wore a mask at the hospital. My husband was confined for a week, and I would go to the hospital to visit him after work. That time, news of MERS in Korea was not too alarming.

As days went by, new MERS cases became rampant. The first two deaths from MERS were reported, and then the third and the fourth. Hundreds of schools closed to prevent possible spread of the disease to the students. Nearly 2,000 people who manifest symptoms of MERS have been quarantined. Camels in zoos across the country have been isolated as they are believed to be carriers of MERS. Sales of surgical masks skyrocketed, a sign that people are now taking MERS seriously. My brother-in-law who works in Seoul told me that N95 masks are sold out in many drugstores. This is the mask given to medical staff working in areas with highly infectious diseases. Ordinary citizens in affected areas who don’t work at hospitals or come in close contact with MERS patients can use ordinary masks, but some citizens are not willing to take their chances, so despite the discomfort of using an N95 mask and its unbelievably high price, they buy it or order one on-line.

Many citizens criticized the government for its poor handling of the MERS outbreak and for withholding information about the severity of the situation. People were starting to make assumptions and spreading word about hospitals and cities affected by MERS. Korean authorites argued over incorrect information and the government’s response to MERS.

About 2,000 Chinese and 500 Taiwanese have canceled trips to South Korea and more tourists are expected to shy away from visiting the country.

More and more citizens have become fearful of MERS spreading further. In affected areas, most people can be seen donning masks. In some areas where there are usually families going out on weekends, public places and streets are not as crowded as before.

Today, another person died from MERS, which makes this the fifth fatality, and 14 new cases have been confirmed. There are now 64 people in South Korea who are infected by MERS. Although we can’t help but be anxious at this point, going on panic mode won’t do us any good. We can and should go on with our daily lives while taking preventive actions. After all, it is very rare for Koreans to cancel appointments or not turn up for work, so making the decision to “not go out” for fear of contracting MERS is a total no-brainer. MERS IS NOT EASILY TRANSMITTED FROM PERSON-TO-PERSON, unless there is close and prolonged contact with an infected patient, which is the case with most of the subsequent patients in South Korea diagnosed with the disease. Patients with MERS can transfer the virus to others by coughing or sneezing within 2 meters of distance. Contrary to what others are saying, MERS may be airborne, especially in closed spaces like hospitals.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) advises us to do the following to help protect ourselves from the virus:

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There are a number of infographics on safety precautions against MERS that are very simple to follow that you can teach your little ones or you can read and follow yourself. Don’t feel dumb reading them or being reminded of what to do, because believe it or not, some of us can’t even wash our hands properly!

This video shows us the proper way of sneezing and washing our hands.

It will also help a great deal to boost your immunity as people with weakened immune system such as those who are very young, the aged, the sick and pregnant women are more susceptible to MERS. The patients who died of MERS in Korea had been ill before they contracted MERS.

All the MERS cases in South Korea are hospital-related, so it is best to avoid MERS-affected hospitals.

The Korean government has already disclosed 24 MERS-affected hospitals. These are:

Hospitals with MERS patients
  1. Samsung Medical Center in Gangnam, Seoul where one of its doctor was diagnosed with MERS and apparently contacted over 1,500 people
  2. 365 Seoul Open Clinic in Cheonho, Seoul
  3. Pyeongtaek St. Mary’s Hospital, in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province
  4. Asan Seoul Clinic in Asan, South Chungcheong Province
  5. Daecheong Hospital in Daejeon
  6. Konyang University Hospital in Daejeon
Other MERS effected hospitals
  1. Asan Medical Center in Songpa, Seoul
  2. Yeouido St. Mary’s Hospital in Seoul
  3. Hanaro Clinic in Seoul
  4. Yoon Chang-ok Internal Medicine Clinic in Pildong, Seoul
  5. Pyeongtaek Pureun Hospital in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province
  6. Pyeongtaek 365 Yonhapheo Clinic (Clinics Alliance) in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province
  7. Pyeongtaek Good Morning Hospital in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province
  8. The Good Samaritan Bagae Hospital in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province
  9. Pyeongtaek Yeonsei Hub Family Medicine in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province
  10. St. Vincent Hospital in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province
  11. Hallym University Medical Center in Hawseong, Gyeonggi Province
  12. Medihols Hospital in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province
  13. Bucheon St. Mary’s Hospital in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province
  14. St. Mary’s Hospital Family Medicine Clinic in Seongdong-gu, Seoul (It was wrongfully identified as a Gunpo clinic by the ministry)
  15. Osan Korea Hospital in Osan, Gyeonggi Province
  16. Cheonan Dankook University Hospital in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province
  17. Choi Sun-yong Internal Medicine Clinic in Sunchang, North Jeolla Province.
  18. Daecheon Clinic in Daecheon, South Chungcheong Province

(Source: The Korea Observer)

To see a detailed list of these hospitals, you can check this site in Korean.

On Facebook, a homepage called 메르스맵 provides updates of places in Korea where there have been cases of MERS. 

Some of these areas are:

  • Boryeong-si ,Chungcheonnam-do Province
  • Pyeongtaek-si, Gyeonggi-do,
  • Seo-gu, Daejeon 
  • Asan-si, Chungchongnam-do
  • Jongno-gu, Seoul 
  • Hwaseong-si, Gyeonggi-do 
  • Kangnam-gu,Seoul
  • Gangdong-gu, Seoul

If you live in one of these areas, wear a mask when you go out.

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 (Source: Community Korea)
Although wearing a filter or a surgical mask is said to have little or no benefit, it is better to use one than not have any protection at all. Even though I don’t live in a MERS-affected area, I wear a mask when I commute and go to public places. I started taking Vitamin C, because I easily get sick. I have always had the habit of washing my hands and bringing a hand sanitizer wherever I go. I don’t touch elevator buttons of door knobs in public places. I always have a tissue to wrap around my finger or cover my hands with whenever I push the button of the elevator or handle the door knob. Being obssessive-compulsive somehow helps.
If you are experiencing symptoms of MERS such as fever, cough and difficulty in breathing, diarrhea and nausea or vomiting, seek medical attention right away. There is no vaccine to prevent MERS infection and no specific treatment, but medical care to contain the virus and to help alleviate symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath are given to MERS patients.
Keep safe everyone. Be vigilant against MERS, but keep an open mind.

One thought on “Dealing with MERS Outbreak, Prevention and Places to Avoid in Korea

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