Secrecy Surrounding MERS Outbreak Fuels Fear, Confusion In South Korea

06/02/2015 08:59 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

By Ju-min Park and Sohee Kim

SEOUL, June 2 (Reuters) - Fear and confusion mounted in South Korea over news of the first two deaths from an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and the government's decision not to name hospitals treating infected patients.

Shoppers snapped-up face masks and hand sanitizers, and Samsung Electronics instituted twice-daily temperature checks of staff and said it would refrain from holding large-scale events.

Life on Seoul's bustling streets, however, seemed as normal on Tuesday - a far cry from the empty sidewalks seen in Asian cities such as Hong Kong during the deadly 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Some people donned masks, and a hospital official said many patients had canceled appointments apparently out of fear of being exposed to the respiratory illness.

A public health expert said it was time to do away with the Korean tradition of groups casually visiting acquaintances in hospital, even when the patient may be recovering from an illness that was infectious.

"It may be the obligatory thing to go and comfort your family or friend, but that person has to rest ... and in the current situation we've had cases where they were exposed while visiting hospitals," said Kim Woo-joo, head of the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases.

National health officials have not identified the hospitals where patients are being treated, although local officials in Gyeonggi province surrounding Seoul said one of the patients had died there. More than 700 people are in isolation over concerns of infection, including about 100 who are in hospitals.

Even as public health authorities insisted repeatedly that it was "helpful" to keep the identity of the hospitals from the public, a list of the hospitals was quickly spreading on social media, especially among parents of young children.

"There is a tendency to be hush hush too much, which is creating fear and making people nervous about going to a hospital where there was a case," said Shin So-young, a 38-year-old Seoul resident.

One social media rumor said a patient was being treated on the fifth floor of a hospital: "Make sure to tell your friends and relatives not to go there, no matter how urgent," it said.

The government threatened to crack down on the spreading of false rumors.

South Korea confirmed 25 MERS cases as of Tuesday, including the first two weeks ago in a 68-year-old man who had returned from Bahrain and developed symptoms including a high fever.

Health authorities have been criticized for failing to stop the first patient from infecting others. (Additional reporting by Meeyoung Cho, James Pearson and Brian Kim; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Tony Munroe and Jeremy Laurence)

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