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Gov't loses suit for MERS control failure

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By Lee Kyung-min

A Seoul court ordered the national government to pay 10 million won ($9,800) in compensation to a patient who had been infected with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), in a rare ruling that recognized the government's failure to implement early-stage infection control. A MERS outbreak swept Korea three years ago, infecting at least 186 people and killing 39 of them. Over 16,600 people were quarantined.

An appeals division for civil cases under the Seoul Central District Court overturned an earlier court ruling against the man surnamed Lee. The division handles cases with monetary dispute amounts exceeding 1 million won and below 2 million won, and High Courts handle cases involving higher amounts. Lee filed the suit after recovering from the MERS-CoV infection which he got from a man, identified as patient 16 who infected 23 others, in May 2015.

According to court documents, Lee became infected while being admitted at a hospital in Daejeon where patient 16 was staying. Patient 16 moved there not knowing that had been infected by a different person, identified as patient 1 who infected 28 others, at Pyeongtaek St. Mary's Hospital in Gyeonggi Province. Patient 1, who had been admitted to St. Mary's more than two weeks after returning from a trip to Bahrain, a Middle Eastern country, May 4, reported suspected symptoms of MERS with health authorities the morning of May 18. However, the Korea Centers for Disease and Prevention (KCDC) dismissed it, saying the country had no reports of a MERS outbreak. The next day, KCDC officials conducted an onsite inspection including room 8104 where patient 1 stayed at the hospital, and took sputum, a mixture of saliva and mucus coughed up from the respiratory tract, from him. He was confirmed to have been infected with MERS the following day, May 20.

The court said swift initial quarantine efforts would have prevented such a chain of events, adding late and inept implementation of epidemiological inspections contributed to the rapid spread. "Had the KCDC officials paid more attention to track where patient 1 went and who they came into contact with, the outbreak could have been contained. Also, if the officials had thoroughly questioned those suspected of having come into close contact with him and quarantined them, the spread would have been under control," the court said in its ruling.

Lee Kyung-min

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