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MERS in Korea highlights the need for strengthening risk communications

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Published:
1 Jul 2015

The current Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in South Korea brings back the memories of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which hit hard someEast Asian and Southeast Asiancountries back in 2003. Both experiences reveal that response to a pandemic often focuses on external management such as passenger screening and travel advisories. However, in Korea a hospital turned out to be an epicentre of the spread. This highlighted the importance of internal management between health authorities and the public as well as within the national response mechanism to prevent secondary infections.

The Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) Public Health Network’s Workshop on Risk Communications: What to Learn from Real-life Cases in 2014 featured Singapore’s successful internal management to contain SARS. Even though SARS was over a decade ago, its lessons give us a timely insight into effective public engagement through risk communications for today’s MERS outbreak. One of the key lessons learnt was the importance of transparent and honest communication, which corresponds with the recommendations produced by the joint mission of WHO and Korea.

Besides the importance of public engagement, another priority issue is the vulnerability of healthcare workers. Whether during the Ebola outbreak in Spain and the USA or MERS in Korea, healthcare workers who were treating the patients contracted the virus. This proves the increased vulnerability of healthcare workers through their day-to-day work, making them a likely victim of second infection. For both Ebola and MERS, there was criticism about the discrepancies between the required level of preparedness and actual daily operations in medical institutions.  As this gap continues to be a challenge in internal management, ASEF will hold a Workshop on Risk Communications: Bridging the National Mechanism with Healthcare Workers this September in Malaysia bringing in a multi-disciplinary group of experts from the fields of public health and risk communications to discuss recent cases of public health emergencies. The workshop report will be available online for download after the event.

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