06/11/2015, 00.00
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For Daejeon bishop, the government has failed to be forthright on the true risks of MERS

The country’s health authorities "were wrong to adopt a policy of non-information on MERS,” Mgr Lazarus You Heung-sik, head of the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace, told AsiaNews. “People should have been better informed”. Instead, the lack of information has favoured the violent spread of the virus. As the authorities report new cases, at present, 122 people have been hospitalised, 183 have been quarantined, and almost 3,400 have been instructed to stay at home.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – South Korea’s health authorities "were wrong to adopt a policy of non-information on MERS,” said Mgr Lazarus You Heung-sik, bishop of Daejeon and president of the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace.

“There is little transparency in the country,” he told AsiaNews. “People should have been better informed of the risks posed by MERS. By choosing an opaque approach, the government has in fact helped spread rumours and rumours have not helped the situation."

MERS refers to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, an airborne virus. This morning, South Korean authorities reported 14 new cases, bringing the total to 122, with nine dead. Only Saudi Arabia is worse. Here, the coronavirus first appeared in 2012.

The authorities have also announced that 183 people have now been quarantined. An additional 3,389 have been instructed to stay at home.

The situation has caused great alarm among South Koreans, especially since the authorities appear to have initially downplayed the problem.

 “The first cases were recorded in rural areas in the Diocese of Suwon,” Mgr You said. “However, the problem became serious when a medical team from the Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul (the country’s largest) visited the area without taking the necessary precautions.”

“Given the facility’s reputation,” the prelate noted, “they were allowed to do as they pleased, and this lead to the first outbreak.”

Health Ministry figures indicate that 55 people are currently treated at the Samsung Medical Centre, the highest concentration in the country.

The risk of infection is very high. "In my diocese,” Mgr You said, “we were forced to postpone a seminar with priests set for 15-19 June.  As a precaution, we postponed it to September, hoping that the crisis will be behind us."

MERS is caused by a coronavirus and its progression is similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which killed at least a thousand people in 2003.

However, the MERS virus could be far deadlier than SARS. So far, its mortality rate is around 50 per cent, compared to 10 per cent for SARS.

Cases involving the virus were first reported in South Korea at the end of last month. Since then, and despite criticism and demands from the public, President Park Geun-hye’s administration has opted to protect patient confidentiality, refusing even to say where they are.

For their part, critics have slammed the authorities for trying to cover up the virus’ progression (as mainland China did during the SARS outbreak).

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