South Korea caregiver who died of Mers not informed of exposure, went to many clinics

A South Korean medical worker (centre) checking a visitor at a separate clinic centre for Mers at Konkuk University Hospital in Seoul on June 24, 2015.
A South Korean medical worker (centre) checking a visitor at a separate clinic centre for Mers at Konkuk University Hospital in Seoul on June 24, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A caregiver who had not been informed about her exposure to Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) died just two days after her official Mers diagnosis on Wednesday, raising questions once again about the government's handling of the outbreak.

Critics say the late caregiver could have been able to recover from the disease if she had been diagnosed earlier, especially since she did not have any preexisting medical conditions.

The late caregiver - the nation's 173rd Mers case - is believed to have been exposed to the virus on June 5, when she accompanied her client to Kyung Hee University Hospital at Gangdong in Seoul, where the 76th Mers patient was staying at the time.

The 70-year-old, however, had never been informed about the exposure by the authorities, and therefore was never put under quarantine.

She started experiencing Mers symptoms on June 10, and visited a number of medical facilities in Gangdong district of Seoul, including am otolaryngology clinic, before she was hospitalised at the Hallym University Medical Centre in Seoul on June 18. By that time, she had already developed pneumonia, a disease that can seriously deteriorate a Mers patient's condition.

She was eventually admitted to the hospital's intensive care unit on June 20, and was officially diagnosed with Mers on June 22. She died on Wednesday, just two days after she learnt of her Mers infection.

Her death was one of two reported by Seoul on Thursday. Including her, 31 people have now died from the disease, with 181 cases reported, said the authorities on Friday.

Dr Margaret Chan, the director-general of World Health Organization, stressed the importance of early diagnosis and treatment of Mers last week.

"It is important for us to know that early treatment, you know, present yourself early during illness, would give you a better chance and better prospect for survival," she told reporters in Seoul.

The Health Ministry explained that the late patient's client, who was treated at Kyung Hee University Hospital at Gangdong's emergency unit on June 5, did not report her caregiver's visit to the facility to the authorities.

"Because the client never told us, she didn't learn about the late patients' existence until later," said Dr Jeong Eun Kyung from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the Health Ministry.

"The client said she didn't say anything about who accompanied her to the hospital, because she 'simply assumed her caregiver would be all right as she had always been healthy'. We acknowledge that we should have handled the particular situation earlier, but such circumstances made it difficult."

In order to prevent such cases from happening again, the Health Ministry said it will make it mandatory for medical facilities to keep a record of all visitors to their emergency care units, including those who accompany the patients, starting from Thursday.

The authorities predict that some 2,135 people may have been exposed to the virus as the caregiver visited numerous medical facilities while showing Mers symptoms before being hospitalised.

They are urging those who visited the Hallym University Medical Centre in Seoul from May 17 to May 22, Mok Cha-su internal medicine clinic from June 10 to June 11, Bon otolaryngology clinic on June 15 and Gangdong neurosurgery clinic on June 16 to let their doctors know that they may have been exposed to the virus should they seek medical help for any symptoms or diseases.

The individuals are also asked to report to the authorities immediately should they experience Mers-like symptoms, including a high fever, coughing or shortness of breath, by calling 120 or contacting the nearest public health center.

Among the 181 confirmed patients, 35 of them are health-care workers, 64 are those who visited inpatients in medical facilities and 82 are those who were exposed to the virus while being treated for their preexisting medical conditions at hospitals.

The largest portion of them - 21.7 per cent - are in their 50s, followed by those in their 60s and 70s.