SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Amid growing concerns about the spread of Ebola worldwide, health experts and lawmakers in South Korea say the country is ill-prepared for a possible outbreak of the deadly virus. Fears escalated here last week as the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first case of transmission of the virus in the US on Oct 12.
While the government says it is doing everything necessary to prevent the disease from spreading in South Korea, experts say that the country's health-care workers are not "instructed enough" in the proper protocol for caring for a potential Ebola case, and do not have adequate numbers of safe protective equipment.
Since Ebola patients only become contagious once the disease progresses to the point of showing symptoms, health-care workers treating them are among the most vulnerable, even if they wear protective gear.
According to Dr Shin Hyun Young, a physician and the spokesman of the biggest representative body of South Korean doctors, local hospitals that are not equipped with quarantine units must not perform any medical procedure should they receive a patient who has visited Ebola-affected countries in the past and has symptoms of the virus.
"The health-care workers must wear protective equipment and send the patient to a facility that has quarantine facilities as soon as possible. Those who stay with the patient in the ambulance must wear protective gear as well," she told The Korea Herald.
"Ideally, all health-care workers in South Korea must go through a demonstration of protocol or a mock drill at least once for handling cases of Ebola. We are trying to instruct as many health-care workers as possible. But we are also running out of time, so we are planning to make educational videos on the protocols and distribute them."
When asked if she thinks South Korean hospitals are prepared for a possible Ebola outbreak, she said that the current preventative measures are not "strong enough".
In August, the Health Ministry designated a total of 17 hospitals with quarantine units as official facilities to treat patients should Ebola occur in South Korea. Dr Shin said all hospitals nationwide, not just these 17 properties, should be equipped with protective gear, including face masks, eye protection, gloves and fluid-resistant gowns.
"There is no guarantee that the hospitals without quarantine units won't receive Ebola patients. The protective gear is needed for every health facility."
The lack of training for emergency responders in fact led to the death of a malaria patient in South Korea last month.
When the seriously ill Korean man in Busan, who had stayed in Ghana for six months, called the emergency services 119, thinking he may have contracted Ebola, the Busan Metropolitan City Fire Department tried sending him to the University of Ulsan College of Medicine, one of the 17 designated hospitals for possible Ebola patients.
But the hospital, reportedly "unaware of its designation", told the fire emergency to take him elsewhere. The patient, who had to wait for almost two hours after making his initial call, was eventually diagnosed with malaria and died.
"The fact that the hospital (in Ulsan) was not even aware of its designation shows how seriously ill-prepared our medial system is (for a possible Ebola outbreak)," said lawmaker Yang Seung Jo of the main opposition party.
"Because of miscommunication and poor handling of the emergency, the patient could not receive the prompt treatment that he deserved."
Mr Lee Jong Jin of the ruling Saenuri Party also recently pointed out that all of some 6.13 million pieces of medical safety equipment owned by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including masks and anti-fluid gowns, were purchased back in 2009, while the current law only allows such medical gear to be used for a maximum of five years.
"These pieces of equipment must either be replaced with new ones or examined for their safety," the lawmaker said.
Health-care workers must also be taught how to wear the gear properly, according to Shin from KMA. While protective gear such as gloves and masks prevent contact with the virus, safety is only guaranteed when they are worn properly and removed without touching their contaminated surfaces.
Ms Nina Pham, an American nurse and the first person to contract Ebola within the US, was infected despite taking the correct precautions by wearing full protective gear.
Mr Kim Young Taek at the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said his agency is educating as many health-care workers as possible.
"We are keeping track of everyone who has visited the Ebola-affected countries," he told The Korea Herald. "We have very clear safety protocols and all health care workers are currently being educated. All of our safety gear will only be used once and then incinerated (should Ebola break out)."
The growing public concern over the deadly virus here has pressured the South Korean government to ask three Ebola-affected West African countries to minimize their participation in a three-week conference of the International Telecommunication Union which kicks off in Busan on Monday.
The three countries - Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia - informed Seoul on Saturday that their 28 delegates will not be joining the event.
Mr Nam Yoon In Soon of the main opposition party pointed out that Mr Thomas Eric Duncan, a 42-year-old Liberian national who died of Ebola in the US on Oct 8, was only diagnosed with the deadly virus nine days before his death.
"South Korea should be taking stronger measures (both at the airports and at hospitals) so the citizens can feel completely safe," the lawmaker said.