MERS : Me and Everybody Else Running Scared

Main Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s no secret that the MERS outbreak in South Korea has got people (seemingly) shaking in their boots. The first time I noticed something was up was when my friends, who are hagwon (academy) teachers, started posting pictures of themselves in masks to Facebook saying things like “our hagwon boss is making us wear these” or “Ready to take on this MERS!”

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It reminded me of when I was a hagwon teacher and our boss made us wear masks as well for the outbreak of H1N1 Swine Flu in 2009. A group of expat teachers were put under house-arrest/quarantine during that time and one of the expat magazines in Korea covered the story at that time (I thought it was Groove Magazine but I’m unable to find it now in their archives).

There was a similar fear/paranoia when Bird flu (2014) and Mad Cow disease (2008) were around. I bet SARS was the same way. Koreans (or is it people in general? or is it people who watch too much over-hyped news?) seem to really freak out about disease like this. (Korea also used to make expat teachers all take an AIDS test before allowing them to teach in their academies until the UN recently condemned such practices – native Koreans were never forced to take the test.)

Just the Facts

This morning, I found a couple of great articles with solid FACTS (not media hype) about the spread of MERS. Here are the articles:

And here are the FACTS:

  1. It’s LESS infectious than SARS (remember in 2003?)
  2. It’s transferred by close person-to-person contact – not yet by air
  3. All confirmed cases occurred in hospitals
  4. Of the 108 confirmed cases, 9 died, 4 recovered and were released
  5. All of the dead had “pre-existing health conditions” (and were 50+ as far as I can find)
  6. People with diabetes, renal failure, and chronic lung disease are considered high risk
  7. It’s deadlier than SARS (mortality rate 35%) + no vaccine
  8. Korea’s mortality rate = less than 10% (around 8%)
  9. 3,500 people were quarantined
  10. 2,500 schools have been closed in fear
  11. It first appeared in the Middle East in 2012
  12. It behaves more like MRSA (that kills 300 people in England and Wales every year)
  13. It is housed DEEP in the lungs – so is harder to spread
  14. Unless it mutates to be able to spread more easily person-to-person, it is UNlikely to become a pandemic
  15. There has been no travel warning issued for South Korea
Source: Jeonju Knowledge
Source: Jeonju Knowledge (image) WebMD (article)

And, yes, agreed, South Korea hasn’t done a super awesome job of handling this situation this time (and some of the deep-seated cultural traits of Korea seem to help the propagation of the virus) – here are some examples:

Quarantine:

  1. Quarantine was not swift and “decisive” like it was with SARS
    1. (Admittedly, MERS is hard to catch initially and was probably missed in the first patient “by incomplete information from the patient about his travels”)
  2. Some DOCTORS with confirmed cases seem to have thought quarantine was just a “suggestion”
    1. One doctor with a confirmed case attended a seminar with 1,565 other people
    2. Two doctors (a couple) broke self-quarantine to visit the Philippines
  3. Hospitals with confirmed cases were not immediately warned of the possibility of spreading the virus
  4. The government underestimated the potential spread of the virus
  5. The list of infected hospitals was released late – 2.5 weeks AFTER the initial outbreak

    Image Source: The Korea Observer (Best thing about this image is the Zombie Apocalypse style text)
    Image Source: The Korea Observer
    (Best thing about this image is the Zombie Apocalypse style text)

Hospital Culture:

  1. Patients often “jostle, cajole and name-drop to get referrals to the biggest hospitals” (better doctors, right?)
  2. Family members and outside caregivers often do much of the care work for their loved ones in the hospital – exposing themselves to disease
  3. Korean hospitals are close-quartered with beds and seats arranged close together

General Hygiene/Health:

(The following is a list from my own observation and talking with my wife (Korean) and is not from another article.)

  1. Koreans generally don’t cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze (one of my pet peeves) – and they only ever pull out the masks when FEARFUL of getting sick
  2. Koreans stay much longer in the hospital than expats (one friend was confined to a bed in Korea for a week for what would be an out-patient ear surgery in the US)
  3. Koreans (particularly the elderly) visit doctor’s offices and hospitals more often than expats (probably due to low costs – especially for medicine)
  4. Korea is one of the MOST stressed out countries in the world (lowers your immune system functionality) and has one of the HIGHEST suicide rates in the OECD
  5. Koreans are typically overworked and under-rested (and have the lowest productivity rates in the OECD to show for it)

Don’t Freak Out

Agreed, we need to be aware of the situation, and (better) steps need to be taken to contain the outbreak – but there’s no reason to overly freak out about this and treat it like a zombie apocalypse by stocking up on food, water, and masks, (and shotguns) and locking ourselves in our homes.

Actually, maybe we should be thankful it came to Korea. We have an excellent health care system here – one of the best in the world. If anyone has a chance to treat it well – and possibly find a cure – Korea stands just as good a chance as any.

Stay Healthy:

  1. Know the Symptoms: fever, coughing, shortness of breath and gastrointestinal symptoms including diarrhea and nausea
  2. Practice good hygiene: (The following information was distributed by the US Embassy.)
    1. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
    2. Use an alcohol-based sanitizer IF soap and water are not available
    3. Cover your nose and mouth when sneezing and throw the used tissue in the trash. Do not reuse tissues
    4. Clean and disinfect commonly used surfaces, such as doorknobs, light switches, handrails, or toys
    5. Avoid close contact, such as kissing or sharing eating utensils, with sick individuals
    6. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
    7. Avoid unnecessary visits to hospitals
  3. Be responsible for yourself:
    1. Contacts with MERS patients will require monitoring or isolation for up to 14 days
    2. If you were seen at any other Korean hospital on or after 15 May 2015 AND you have a fever, cough or shortness of breath, please call your health care provider for further guidance
    3. Further information on MERS may be obtained at the CDC website at http://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/MERS/

For more good information about the media hype surrounding MERS in Korea, be sure to check out this article on 10mag.com: The 10 Best Examples of MERS Fear Mongering

Are you running scared of MERS? Let me know in the Comments below.

Here’s a newspaper clipping that was shared with me about one patient’s recovery:

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