Mers virus

The tardy response by South Korea and the WHO to Mers outbreak should be reviewed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 June, 2015, 12:57am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 June, 2015, 5:57pm

The government has stepped up its advice against unnecessary travel to South Korea as it moved to the serious response level of its plan to deal with an outbreak of the Mers virus now spreading there. The new level of preparedness represents a moderate risk of the local spread of Mers causing a serious impact on public health in Hong Kong. This continues a proactive stance that reflects hard lessons learned during the darkest days of the Sars crisis 12 years ago. It is also to be expected, given the death toll of hundreds from severe acute respiratory syndrome and the invisible scars still borne by many survivors.

However, the less rigorous response of South Korea ever since it quarantined patient zero and two relatives stands in stark contrast. Experts blame this for the rapid spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome.

That is perhaps also not surprising, given that South Korea may have been complacent after suffering only a handful of Sars cases. On the other hand, it comes as a surprise that an Asian economic powerhouse appears to be a weak link when it comes to regional defence against deadly disease.

From the day a relative of the original patient was allowed to check himself out of isolation and fly to Hong Kong en route to Guangdong, where he was hospitalised with Mers, Seoul has faced criticism over tardiness and laxness in various aspects of its response.

In the latest salvo, University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung said it was ridiculous for South Korean authorities to finally reveal the names of 24 hospitals implicated in spreading Mers after more than two weeks. To be sure, a similar information blackout in Hong Kong would have resulted in an angry public outcry. Ho also raised questions over the World Health Organisation's handling of the outbreak, saying it was not as well placed as local teams to handle emergencies.

That said, the South Korean authorities have injected a welcome sense of urgency and rigour into their response.

But the entire experience would not make the region feel any more secure against another major outbreak of a deadly virus. There is a need for both Seoul and the WHO to take honest looks at their performance and the improvements needed to help ensure a better informed and more coherent regional response.