Fears of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) have spread from South Korea to China on a combination of carelessness among individuals and medical staff, as well as the bungling of initial response by the South Korean government.
As of Sunday, the number of South Koreans infected with the deadly viral disease jumped to 15 after the patient zero was confirmed positive on May 20, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
The 68-year-old man has infected 14 people, including a 44-year- old man who went to China against advice from the doctor, as the first patient "belatedly" notified doctors of his travel to the Middle East.
The first patient returned to South Korea on May 4 after traveling to the Middle East. From May 11, he suffered a fever and visited three hospitals for treatment, but he failed to mention his trip before he was confirmed positive for the MERS corona virus on May 20 at the fourth hospital.
All the 14 secondary infection cases happened for three days from May 15 at the hospital, which the first patient visited second. If the patient zero reported his Middle-East travel at the first hospital, the spread would have been limited.
The second case was the first patient's wife, and the third was a 76-year-old man who shared a room at the same hospital with the patient zero. The third infectee's daughter in her mid-40s was the fourth.
The 44-year-old man, son of the third patient and brother of the fourth infectee, went to China for a business trip on May 26 despite recommendations from a doctor of dropping his travel plan.
The man visited the hospital, where his father and the patient zero were hospitalized, on May 16 and stayed there for about four hours. Three days later, he suffered a fever and went on May 22 to see a doctor, to whom he failed to report his close contact with his father who was confirmed positive for the MERS on May 20.
During his second visit to another hospital on May 25, his wife reported the close contact to the doctor who said he should drop his travel plan to China.
Against medical advice, the man flew from South Korea to Hong Kong on May 26 via an Asiana Airlines flight and arrived at China' s Huizhou city through Shenzhen by bus on the same day.
In Hong Kong, the health authorities spotted the man's fever and asked him whether he had any contact with the MERS infectee, but the man denied any contact.
The doctor, who examined the man on May 25, "belatedly" reported the suspected infection to the South Korean health authorities on May 27.
Lack of understanding among the individuals and medical staffs over the fatal contagion risk triggered the spread of MERS fears from South Korea to China. If not for the carelessness of the individuals and medical staff, the MERS fears would not have obsessed the Chinese people.
Two South Korean women, who were on the same flight to Hong Kong and sat close to the MERS patient, at first refused to be isolated for test and treatment, reflecting how South Koreans lack understanding of the fatality of the viral disease. The two later agreed to the isolation.
The bungling of the South Korean government's initial response has already been under criticism. Among the 14 cases of the secondary contagion, seven infectees were not on the government's list of people required to be isolated and observed.
The seven infectees stayed at the same ward with the patient zero, but they were excluded from the isolation list for the reason that they didn't stay at the same hospital room.
A 71-year-old man, who had been hospitalized at the same ward with the patient zero, was confirmed positive on Thursday, and a broader range of testing was conducted. Since then, six more infection cases have been found.
The 44-year-old man who raised fears of the MERS spread in China was also excluded from the isolation list.
No tertiary infection case has been reported yet, but the man's non-sensical trip to China and his contacts with his co-workers and many unspecified people in South Korea for 11 days raised possibility for the tertiary contagion.
Given the incubation period of two weeks, the number of infectees is not likely to rise further from June 3 as the patient zero in South Korea was tested positive on May 20.
But the South Korean man infected with the MERS virus left for China on May 26, indicating a possibility that any tertiary infection case might happen in the next 10 days and it could cause an exponential increase of contagion.
South Korean Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo vowed Sunday to make all-out efforts to prevent and control the tertiary contagion of the MERS, apologizing for the exclusion of many of the infectees from the isolation list.
The second hospital, where the patient zero was hospitalized and most of the patients were infected from the first patient, was forced to suspend operation. The health ministry planned to conduct an epidemiological survey from a zero base.
The ministry also planned to separately isolate high-risk suspects who had close contact with the already infected persons. They would be isolated and observed in the next 14 days.
Despite those measures, concerns remained as many people still distrust the government's response. Officials of private health groups complained about the initial response during their meeting with the health minister Sunday.
According to local media reports, the officials pointed out various issues, including a delayed result of MERS tests, the government's failure to share medical records of the infected persons with doctors and lack of information on those who had close contact with the MERS patients.
Some stressed the need for inflicting harsher punishment against suspected infectees who had close contact with the infected patients but failed to voluntarily report it to the health authorities.
Under the contagion prevention law, the suspected infectees and doctors who examined them are fined at most 3 million won (2,700 U. S. dollars) for the failure of voluntary reports. In practice, the doctors indicted for the failure of reports have recently been fined just 500,000 won, and the sentences were suspended.