A poster shows symptoms of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and asks people with such symptoms to wear masks at Seoul National University Hospital, central Seoul, Friday. People fear that they may contract the disease when visiting hospitals, as eight out of the confirmed nine patients were infected with the disease at hospitals where the first patient was treated. / Yonhap
By Jhoo Dong-chan
Fears and groundless rumors over Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are prevailing via online messenger and social networking services (SNS) amid the rapid spread of the disease.
With government measures failing to prevent the disease from spreading, people are at a loss whether to believe the rumors or not.
Since Thursday when the nation reported its seventh case of the disease, online messengers and SNS have been plastered with a rumor that says, “Do not visit Yeouido St. Mary’s Hospital! The seventh MERS patient was confirmed there and sent to a quarantine hospital. The hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) has been shut down.”
An official of the hospital said that was not true.
“The hospital’s ICU is in full operation now. It is true that the patient visited the hospital and was confirmed to have the virus. But the patient was safely sent to a quarantine hospital.”
Another rumor said: “Several cases were confirmed at hospitals in Suwon and Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, and the disease has been already transmitted to a number of people there. Foreign media report that Korea is under disaster, saying MERS will become a more serious epidemic than Ebola or SARS.”
The rumor began to spread after it was found that the third patient, a 76-year-old man, shared a hospital room with the first patient at a clinic in Pyeongtaek and was later sent to a hospital in Suwon.
Driven by pandemic fear, many people expressed their concerns on SNS.
“I have a business trip next month in the Middle East. I think I have to cancel it,” said an online community user.
Concern over the virus is impacting overseas travel.
“Nearly a half the tourists who booked trips to the Middle East have cancelled,” said Kim Jae-myung, an official at Modetour, one of the nation’s largest tour agencies. “Before wiping out the MERS infection crisis, not many people are expected to visit the region any time soon.”
Some denounce public health authorities for their negligence in responding to the disease.
The daughter of the third patient asked the authority to quarantine her when her father was confirmed to have contracted MERS on May 21. She was experiencing a mild fever and headache at that time.
The health authority, however, rejected her request and sent her home as officials believed that her symptoms were not those of MERS.
She had a high fever several days and eventually became the fourth patient.
“I don’t think the health authority is handling the issue seriously. Many people fear the government’s quarantine efforts may be insufficient to prevent the disease spreading,” said an office worker, surnamed Gum.
Korea has the largest number of MERS patients outside the Middle East. Five more cases were confirmed Friday, pushing up the total number to 12. No related deaths have been reported.