Tuesday, June 30, 2015

MERS in Korea

Over the past month or so, there's been one thing on every Korean's mind. If you haven't heard yet, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) has infected 182 people in Korea since the end of May, and has killed 33 people.  This has induced widespread fear throughout the country, and has caused many people to avoid leaving their houses as much as possible.

When I first heard about MERS from my students and co-workers I was naturally worried. However, once I learned more about the virus, I realized there wasn't quite such a need to panic. The spread of MERS has been contained to hospitals, medical workers, and friends and families who have had contact with the infected people.  MERS isn't airborne, and unless you're in close contact with an infected person, you're probably not going to become infected yourself. Out of the people who have died, nearly all of them were elderly or had pre-existing illnesses. Thousands of people have been quarantined in the aftermath of the outbreak, and legitimate questions about the hospital practices in Korea have surfaced.  The handling of the outbreak in the beginning was far from sufficient, which is why it spread as much as it did. People are angry, and rightfully so. 

However, although the World Health Organization has repeatedly said that life should continue as normal, people aren't really listening to this advice at all. Tourism has plummeted, which has done tremendous damage to the economy. Although, where the overall economy has taken a hit with the outbreak of MERS, the sales of face masks have gone through the roof.  Are the face masks really effective? I'm not really sure, but I think when people wear them they at least feel like they're doing something to prevent this virus.

Immediately following the initial outbreak, thousands of schools were closed, another measure which experts said wasn't necessary. Although school was still in session for us, every morning every person at school has to have their temperatures taken and recorded before doing anything else. There have also been other noticeable changes in school, such as the fact that there is now always soap in the bathrooms. Yes, believe it or not, before this outbreak there was often no soap in the bathrooms at school, which is quite gross when you think about it in any context, but especially so when you think about it in an elementary school, where kids are all over the place. Of course, the soap in the bathroom is almost always bar soap, which makes me crazy...because seriously, what good does that do? Let's all touch the same bar of soap after using the bathroom...that makes sense.  Regardless, it's progress I suppose, and there has also been an increase in hand sanitizer throughout the schools. I pretty much never saw hand sanitizer in Korea before MERS, but suddenly there is a bottle in every classroom. One of my schools even has a new machine which has a motion detector to dispense the hand sanitizer. 

While I welcome the handwashing and increased supply of hand sanitizer, MERS has also caused most school activities to be canceled. School field trips and sporting competitions have been cancelled because of MERS, and my teacher trip, which was scheduled for a few weekends ago, was also cancelled.  Most upsetting to me though was the fact that my scheduled tour to the DMZ was cancelled two weekends ago as well.  I really can't figure out why they cancelled this trip, given the fact that every health professional was saying life should go on as normal, but c'est la vie. 

The outbreak of MERS is clearly something we should be attentive to and proactive about preventing, but I can't tell you how many coworkers have asked me "Aren't your afraid because of MERS?"  My answer is no.  I'm not afraid of MERS.  The media has run with this story, and I feel people are going overboard just to for a false sense of being proactive.  Over 10 million people live in Seoul.  It's an incredibly dense city, yet even though it was the center of the outbreak, only 182 people in the ENTIRE country have been diagnosed since the end of May.  Call me crazy, but I think I'll be ok.

**I actually originally wrote this post well over a week ago, but have just gotten around to finishing it now. Over the past week things seem to have calmed down a bit, as there haven't been many new cases emerging. However, the daily temperature checks are still in place, and I'm pretty sure my coworkers would still freak out if I told them I went to Seoul (which I did this last weekend, but they don't need to know I went into "dangerous" MERS territory). This whole MERS outbreak has certainly made my last few months in Korea  a bit more unpredictable. 

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