Much like saying the word bomb in an airport, you need to be careful when uttering the name MERS in Korea.
Being a fairly small country with a large population, the spread of disease is a real concern. The media however plays an important role to informing people about how to respond to any new threat. Since, I don’t understand Korean, I’m not sure what people are being told through Korean news, but it is clear that everyone is very concerned and afraid of this virus.
In some ways, it has helped reinforce important things like washing your hands with soap and water. I can’t count how many times I’ve used a public bathroom or even the bathrooms at school to find that there is no soap to wash my hands with. Once the MERS outbreak made headlines in Korea, there have been soap dispensers placed near every sink in my school. When visiting the large movie theater at the Gwangju bus terminal, I saw signs in Korean posted next to the soap dispensers that I’ve never seen before. I think we can assume it has something to do with the MERS virus.
|A MERS Public health poster at Neungju Elementary|
In other ways, the fear of MERS has become a little ridiculous. Although not much is known about MERS since it’s debut in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, it has been found to be transmitted though close personal contact. Here’s what the World Health Organization has to say about transmission among humans.
“The virus does not appear to pass easily from person to person unless there is close contact such as providing clinical care to an infected patient while not applying strict hygiene measures. This has been seen among family members, patients, and health‐care workers. The majority of cases have resulted from human-to-human transmission in health care settings.”
So far all the confirmed cases (126) in Korea have been linked spread within hospitals. Sadly, the majority of deaths from the virus (24 as of June, 19th) have been elderly people who were being treated at the hospital for other serious conditions. Val and I visited our hospital in Hwasun last week to get a vaccination for our upcoming trip to Thailand. Being my second trip to a hospital since our original visit during orientation, I noticed many different things from my limited time in American hospitals. In Korea, people go to the hospital for almost everything that we’d normally see our regular doctor for. When going to the doctor in America, I’m used to arriving 10 minutes early to my appointment, and then waiting about 20 minutes before going to the second waiting room where the doctor and nurses will come visit you. At this hospital, there are different areas for different things, so to get our Hepatitis A vaccination; we had to travel to 4 different places around the hospital. The idea of having potentially sick people run around a hospital doesn’t seem like the best way to prevent a virus that lives within hospitals. Oh yeah, and Val’s school insisted that we take a pair of face masks to wear at the hospital, which did not have any MERS patients at the time (and still doesn’t). Korea does have smaller private clinics that may be different, but thankfully, we have yet to visit one
|Hospital Face Mask Selfie!|
Since MERS is not a very contagious virus and not usually seen in younger people, there have been no travel restrictions advised by the CDC. Despite what the CDC says, many schools in Seoul decided to temporarily close. Schools in Hwasun County, where we live, are not planning to close, but many school field trips were postponed until further notice. Every couple days, some teachers ask me how my condition is, just to make sure I don’t have MERS. We have witnessed thermal screening for bus arrivals at the Gwangju Bus Terminal, and we’ve heard from other native English teachers that some schools are taking everyone’s temperature once to twice a day.
|Thermal screening at the bus terminal|
The one thing that blows my mind is that even with some of these somewhat extreme precautionary measures, we really need to teach people to cover their cough and/or sneeze. When riding the bus, which is a very popular mode of transportation for the elderly (the main group at risk), I cringe when I see people coughing and sneezing with no attempt to cover up. Who knows what disease could be lurking in those spray particles.
|Korean media about MERS.|
Are WE worried about MERS?
In short, not really. Each night we pray for the people that have been affected by this outbreak, but we realize the risk to healthy younger people like ourselves (who do not frequent hospitals) the risk is very low. We’ve both been asked a few times at random by various staff members “Aren’t you afraid of MERS?!” and each time we respond with a simple “No.” My co-teachers do not understand why I am not afraid, I hope this virus will be contained soon and they will not have to fear it either. Thankfully, we’re already starting to see a decrease in the fear of MERS, we’re getting less emails from the US Embassy explaining the situation, so that’s always a good sign! :)
Anyways, we wanted to write this post mostly to keep as a memory for us and of course, to inform! :)
On a side note, we just realize that as of June 20th, we have exactly 8 weeks left in our contracts, which means in 8 weeks we will be completely moved out of our apartment and on to our next adventure! We can’t believe it! Prayers for this upcoming transition would be so appreciated!